Handsome Family's Latest Unique with an Occult Feel
By Bradley T. Schuman
The Handsome Family stands firmly atop the hill of modern Americana, serene royalty in a genre that’s seen a lot more media attention and airplay in the last few years.
You’re bound to have heard of them before; Albuquerque locals Brett and Rennie Sparks have put out 10 albums in the last 21 years, and all of them are damned good. “Unseen” keeps up the streak of excellence with ease and grace.
Andrew Bird, on whom I have an enormous music nerd crush, released an album of nothing but Handsome Family covers called “Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of …” in 2014. I dove into that album after hearing “Tin Foiled,” then proceeded to the Handsome Family’s album “Milk and Scissors” (“Drunk by Noon” is still in my top 500 playlist), and after that listened to everything I could get my hands on that they’d done.
Their musical style can be described as folksy bluegrass murder ballads in a slightly tipsy haze. If you like The Lonely Wild’s “Chasing White Light,” Justin Sullivan of New Model Army’s solo album “Navigating by the Stars” or M. Ward’s album “More Rain,” this will be your sort of thing.
The album has a low-key vibe; it’s the sort of thing that could play in the background while planning to rob a bank in a movie, the players sitting at a table full of guns, blueprints and half-empty bottles of whiskey.
There’s spaghetti western guitar and twangy drunken strings, and the piano and organ will remind you of old, slow rock n’ roll and unfiltered cigarettes. The vocals always have an underlying feeling of being a little too tired to cry, tinged with rough-edged resignation and desperate poetry.
“Gold” tells half a story of a robbery gone wrong, and sets your expectations for the album: There aren’t likely to be any happy endings; only gut-shot regrets.
“Back in My Day” and “Tiny Tina” carry surreal nostalgia for days that weren’t and places you’ve never been to.
I’m pretty sure “Underneath the Falls” is about Great Cthulhu – or at least his cousin – and the songs that follow get a little occult: There’s a siren beguiling lovers to a lethal embrace in the sea, a husband with terrible secrets, and phantasms from the world running at right angles to ours.
“King of Dust” has the solemn feel of an anthem to the fallen, and the album closes out with “Green Willow Valley” a mournful tune that feels like a pleading invitation to an empty afterlife that is too much to bear alone.
“Unseen” is a trip through a faerie ring found on a dusty mesa a few feet from the rusted-out carcass of an old Ford truck, watching a world just a little stranger than ours drift by as we hide in the shadows.
The Handsome Family will play at the Launchpad with Pawn Drive and AJ Woods on Nov. 12, before heading out to tour the west coast in December and Europe in early 2017.