‘Unseen’ is the 10th album release from the venerable husband-and-wife alt-country duo who make up The Handsome Family. The album sees them returning to familiar places with dark tales of misery, murder and suicide. On the one hand, there aren’t any really big hitters on this record, such as ‘The Loneliness of Magnets’ from 2009’s ‘Honey Moon’. On the other, the band is definitely accomplished and has honed their craft- there are several moments of great beauty on this album.
‘Tiny Tina’, the fourth song on the record, provides one of these glimpses of gorgeousness. A fast waltz starts and is quickly embellished with xylophone, a trilling mandolin and an ethereal flute. The song follows the story of Tiny Tina, a small horse who is a sideshow act “from the wilds of Arizona, drinks just a thimble of water, eats just a handful of straw”. The whirling music takes the listener all the way to the county fair. The narrator gets caught up in all the fun and fails to see Tiny Tina after all, “But as the fair lights shone at dusk, I stood there in that field of dirt, thinking only of those little hooves trotting circles in the dark. Tiny Tina, the world’s smallest horse. Why didn’t I go see her? Why didn’t I go see that little horse?”
The make-up of The Handsome Family is that wife, Rennie Sparks writes the lyrics, whilst husband, Brett Sparks is responsible for composing the music. ‘Tiny Tina’ is a great example of Rennie’s poetry. This particular piece is a lot gentler than the Family’s usual offerings, but it is evocative of a very specific time and place- the picture is painted vividly and Brett’s part is played out perfectly with deft orchestration.
Other highlights on the album include ‘Back in My Day’- a blend of standard nostalgia “we wore watches on our wrists” with more supernatural or ancient allusions- “there were ghosts in the trees”. This makes for an intriguing blend of themes and sentiments. There is something about The Handsome Family that suggests that they influence the likes of John Congleton and The Nighty Nite with his spooky apocalyptica, and Brett’s voice surely helped inform John Grant’s style.
‘Gentlemen’- a track that starts with a full on organ introduction is a stirring song. Taking the form of a testimony, the content is immediately gripping. “Gentlemen, in the name of science! Gentlemen, I now can prove: the unseen world is close, it pushes through. Gentlemen, the lights blew out! Gentlemen, the curtains moved! A world of light resides just past our view.” The listener is plunged into a Victorian wild west where a dubious medium is convincing a group of learned chaps that there the wall between the two worlds is thin, and ghosts visit to deliver messages from another place.
Finally ‘King of Dust’ sounds like a lament sung by two drunks in a bar. The loose piano power chords and soft drumming back up this strange song about a truly ravaged place where ” there are no golden cities only trailer parks and dust and angels only fly here when you drive into the sun.” The music refers to the Spanish conquistador, Coronado, who ravaged several indigenous American settlements as he travelled across the South-Western states in search of the lost cities of gold. The song is rich in illusion; the theme is typical of what the band do best. They abut the mystical, magical and historical against the parochial every day of poor America.
Whilst, indeed ‘Unseen’ does not have any hits as such, this is a record that demands a close listen. It incorporates the skill, knowledge and legacy involved with playing American folk music with lyrics that concern present woes , interjected with plenty of shimmering magic and moonshine. The Handsome Family certainly know what they are doing, and they are still doing it pretty darn well.
‘Unseen’ is out now via Carrot Top Records
This Handsome Family article was written by Fraisia Dunn, a GIGsoup contributor. Photo by Jesse Littlebird