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The Handsome Family – Wilderness

Carrot Top (N America)/Loose Music (Europe)

The Handsome Family - WildernessAptly titled, this latest album from Rennie and Brett Sparks is like a beautiful life sciences lesson. Packed with facts I presume are correct, and I wouldn’t argue with songwriter Rennie’s instructions – one can learn an awful lot about beasts of our world. The worst beasts being of course ourselves, mankind.

The Handsome Family deliver stories in their songs which seem almost always like age-old tales but are cunningly crafted in the here and now. They’ve chosen an older type of Americana to base the music on, seriously strong on bluegrass and Appalachian traditional tunes, melodies and harmonies. On Wilderness, for the first time, I’m finding myself hearing that these tunes sound like those in other Handsome Family songs. As every song begins I think of lyrics to older releases and normally this would seem a bad thing to me but honestly with The Handsome Family, it’s more a salute, I think. Not to say either that it is old material re-hashed, but more a comforting, familiar sound now which captures my attention and stays true to its roots. And beguilingly, I find I can’t remember a single lyric of the older song I was reminded of after the second line of the new one I’m listening to. Perhaps unintentional, but a clever marketing tool because now I’m going to want to listen to the whole catalogue and match-make songs.

Back to the stories; Rennie roundly ignores modern songwriting convention to remind us of how many ways humans misinterpret nature and skew the orders of histories. We are sinister and culpable in her tales, with our guns and our hairspray and our freeways. We are loud, while the flora and fauna which were here to begin with are quiet and capable of listening to the earth to know the cycles of life and its order. There is no attention given to what humans do to each other, no standardized relationship woes. No concern for money, love or sex – at least not between people. There is a bit of humour, especially on “Owls” which has a good notion of what might happen to someone overly concerned with their possessions. Man’s futile quest to find out what lies at the heart of the world (could it really be a glow worm?) is proof of our own foolishness. However, Rennie doesn’t discount our role in nature. She depicts us most accurately as being the beasts of nature most likely to need medication, but still vital with our own historic importance.

Driving these stories into song is of course Brett’s extremely deep voice. It’s as rich as butterscotch and the echoes and whines of him ( a gentle yodel too) are more clear and more haunting with every Handsome Family release. One imagines a person singing in a cartoonish way, to entertain a group of drunken friends; but clearly with Brett, it is no joke. He so really and without any shame or apology sings like that. It is a beautiful voice. The music, beyond its familiarity, is really interesting as well on Wilderness. Yes, the over-riding theme is country, but there is also a fantastic salute to ‘70s-style southern rock guitar solos, so well done I want to get out my lighter. Lynyrd Skynyrd would be proud. There’s a rousing swing piano in “Octopus”. “Caterpillars” starts out nearly post-punk New Wave-ish and makes me think of Lyle Lovett. Here and there one might hear a mountain dulcimer. Rennie sings too, always quietly in the back, and brings a dark balance.

My favourite song is “Frogs”. The compelling plea to come outside and see the wonders of the night is achingly tempting. I think this is what The Handsome Family want us to do with their music: take a deeper look, a deeper listen, to that which is all around us. To watch the seasons. To hear the songs of the earth and learn her nature. I want to lie down in the dirt, as commanded, and be a mirror of the night.

-Maryna Fontenoy-

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