SHEPHERD'S BUSH EMPIRE, LONDON

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The Handsome Family

Friday November 14, 2003

In contemporary Americana, Brett and Rennie Sparks stand out as dissident pioneers. You can imagine the two of them at the back of a wagon train heading west: drunken fatalists, spotting ghosts and deer and ridiculing manifest destiny. For where others retrace well-trodden paths and humdrum traditions, The Handsome Family go offroad to hunt down phantoms, to update forgotten myths and ancient black jokes.

“Do you love me enough to put my head on a stick in your bedroom?”Rennie Sparks asks an adoring fan as she arrives onstage. “That’s the kind of love I’m looking for.” Later, she will explain how, if swans had hands, they would steal children, and speculate on the best way to dispose of George W Bush. Death by a thousand cuts seems a good plan until she reasons, “I’m afraid killing him will only make him stronger.”

It’s odd how this wry supernaturalist so effortlessly steals the show. Brett Sparks may be The Handsome Family’s nominal frontman, a stentorian crooner and nifty musician who delights in subverting the old-time atmosphere with a few processed beats from his laptop, or a sputtering art-rock guitar solo. But it’s his wife’s lyrics that make the band exceptional, informed as they are by that rarest thing, and original application of the gothic.

She’s compelling stage presence, too, cradling her autoharp like a sickly infant, favouring the odd, dissolute plink rather than anything approaching virtuosity. At times, Rennie’s character and lyrics overshadow the music so completely that you wonder whether her talents would be better deployed as a novelist or, even better, as a witchy storyteller. Her ramblings between songs are sometimes better than the songs themselves, and you can only hope that the tale of a charity shop in Milton Keynes supporting “The reanimation of dead bodies”, or the one about a perilous Christmas on absinthe are kept for posterity somehow.

But then this eldritch, stiff music offers up a tune as good as “Weightless Again” or “24-Hour Store”and Brett Sparks, with his uncannily loud voice and grand melodic ways, reveals himself to be the perfect conduit for his wife’s musings on metaphysics, her picturesque depressions, her hallucinogenic nature studies. His earthiness acts as a counterweight to Rennie’s kookier extremes, and it’s his booming resonance that give her yarns like “When That Helicopter Comes”their biblical sense of authority.

The Handsomes understand that America, past and present, is a huge, strange and often incomprehensible country. And that the people, animals and spirits who inhabit it are stranger and more incomprehensible still?not least, of course, Brett and Rennie themselves.