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The Handsome Family wonders about the last days

By Dan MacIntosh, July 2006

To call The Handsome Family an unusual familial unit would be an understatement. This tight knit "family" consists of Brett Sparks on lead vocals and most musical instruments, with his wife Rennie Sparks providing lyrics and occasional vocals. Although Brett sings in a wonderfully traditional country voice, Rennie supplies him with lyrics that oftentimes come out like ghost stories put to music.

Speaking of spooks, the opening song on the duo's new "Last Days of Wonder" CD (Carrot Top) is all about one person's metamorphosis from flesh and blood human to ghost. Titled "Your Great Journey," this odd little ditty describes how the "elevator doors close on you" and the way "busses drive right past" once you've achieved weightless invisibility. It later summarizes, "You've begun to dance the Ghost Dance." This story, which reads like a screenplay straight out of "The Twilight Zone," begins - oddly enough - with a few highly scientific lines. "Like four million tons of hydrogen/exploding on the sun." Such lab-ready phraseology isn't out of place on this work because scientist Nicola Tesla is spotlighted with the very next track, "Tesla's Hotel Room."

"There's just something wonderful and beautiful about him and also tragic and bizarre," Rennie elaborates on Tesla's life. "He's just one of those scientists I wish more scientists were like because he was a real mystic as well as being a scientist, a real visionary kind of person who believed in the invisible world around him."

Yep, Tesla is exactly Rennie's kind of scientist. It was almost as if circumstances kept nagging at Rennie until she finally wrote this song about the man. "I read a lot of things on the internet, and I'd seen some shows on PBS and heard some radio shows," she says. "And his name just kept popping up in a lot of different places...places I was just looking for other things," Rennie explains. "Harry Smith...there was a book of interviews with him, and he talked about Tesla. And I kept hearing Tesla, Tesla, Tesla everywhere."

"And (she) started listening to the band Tesla all the time, too," Brett jokes. Brett, by the way, is many times the comic relief in this two-person act.

The Handsome Family is kind of a musical marriage made in heaven because they often compensate for each other. "Rennie reads, and I listen to music," Brett states matter-of-factly.

"I probably just have a better understanding of words than I do of music," Rennie continues. "I know you (Brett) can listen to lots of classical pieces, whereas I can only say, "Oh, that's pretty'."

"By some strange twist of fate, Rennie, you ended up being in a band," Brett says jokingly. "Before (the group), she was a writer, and we lived together for seven years before we ever collaborated on a song. She was always writing stories before then."

These days, Rennie is writing a lot of twisted love stories, which Brett then puts to music. There is an odd approach to the dating ritual running through "Last Days of Wonder," which make you scratch you head over Rennie's unusual perspective on boy/girl relationships. For example, "Bowling Alley Bar" describes a special encounter at a bowling alley.

"Well, I think you should be able to find romance anywhere, if you know how to look for it," defends Rennie. "Why can't you sing about love inside a bowling alley? Love should be a force that can be brought into any situation."

These particular love songs bring out the redneck, if you will, in The Handsome Family. These tracks also point out how Rennie oftentimes writes with Brett's voice in mind because this man has a voice that was obviously born to cry country songs. "I do, but I sometimes push the boundaries a little bit," Rennie explains, when asked if she hears Brett's voice singing her words. "Sometimes, we try things, and they don't work."

"Really?" Brett asks mockingly. "You're not supposed to tell anybody that."

"On the "Hunter Green" song, we ended up having me sing it," Rennie continues. "But most of the time, I end up writing things I can envision him singing."

"It's more what's appropriate for the song," says Brett, "rather than my style or ego or whatever."

In contrast to the way most songs are created, The Handsome Family lyrics almost always come before the tunes.

That's the way "it happens in rock music, I think," supposes Rennie. "I think with traditional songwriting, usually the words come first, as with Gilbert & Sullivan and Tin Pan Alley."

"And Gershwin or Cole Porter" Brett adds.

"Willie Nelson...I'll bet he writes the words first," Rennie suggests.

"Yeah maybe, I don't know," Brett wonders. "Most popular music is kind of riff-oriented, and then the lyrics are just kind of improvised afterwards. I think it's nice to have a map. The lyrics are kind of maps for the songs. They kind of tell you how the music should behave in a way. I don't know if that makes any sense. Actually, when I used to write songs, I started with lyrics too."

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