For the past twenty years, husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks have been exploring the dark side of country music as The Handsome Family. Tales of murder and the macabre deep in the backwoods of rural America have long been the staple of the couple’s songs, drawing from folk and country and tinged with the dark shadows of southern American gothic.
New album Wilderness however, is a tribute to the other inhabitants of the forests and swamps, the creatures that live alongside the two legged characters of The Handsome Family’s world. It’s this menagerie that make up the bulk of the set tonight played in the grand surroundings of the Islington Assembly Hall.
On paper songs about Flies, Woodpeckers, glow-worms and octopus might seem lighthearted and a departure from the gloom of previous Handsome Family fare. When Flies shows itself as an ode to the insects feeding on the bloody corpse of General Custer’s slain body and Woodpecker’s theme of the infamous ‘Wisconsin Window Smasher’, Mary Sweeney (from Michael Lesy’s amazing collection of stories and photographs of small town Wisconsin that became the cult classic Wisconsin Death Trip) and her mental breakdown and drug-addled vandalism spree in a small town in turn of the century America, it shows the knack that Brett and Rennie have for finding the black heart and gallows humour underneath the most playful of tunes.
As well as complimenting each other musically, with Rennie’s sweet harmonies wrapping effortlessly around the ominous baritone of Brett’s croon, they are a heartwarming couple to watch. Introductions to songs are made by Rennie Sparks with a winsome charm that wraps the audience around her little finger as Brett plays the lovable curmudgeon, quick to make a self-deprecating joke or pithy one-liner. The Handsome Family tonight also include a host of instruments including a jawbone and a singing saw adding new sounds to the sparse guitars and banjo that reverberate from the stage and around the Assembly room’s captivated audience.
An evening in the company of a enchanting couple and a song filled menagerie of animals with dark tales attached to them. The Handsome Family were the most bewitching storytellers.
Photos by Anni Timms