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Surreal Visions of Americana

Handsome Family's folk-based music is haunting, tender and whimsical.

January 10, 2002|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stuck inside Chicago with the desert blues again....

A Dylan paraphrase seems appropriate to describe the lot of the Handsome Family, since both artists share a knack for spinning Americana into surreal visions.

The Handsomes--husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks--are the creators of a distinctively haunting brand of folk-rooted music that has made them a connoisseur's choice in the "alternative country" spread. Critics and Brits love them, and with a coalition of unreformed old folkies and college-rock hipsters in place at home, they've become regulars in year-end best-of lists and on the indie-rock touring circuit. (They headline at Spaceland on Friday.)

The fact that they crafted their rustic artifacts in the belly of a city whose vastness and dreariness distressed them--to the point that after 12 years in Chicago they finally moved away to Albuquerque last summer--might be surprising, until you hear Rennie, who writes the lyrics, talk about the songs on the fifth Handsome Family album, "Twilight," which came out last fall. It turns out that deprivation can translate into inspiration.

"It was about all the things in Chicago that made life bearable, and these little moments of beauty that just strike you when you're living in an ugly city," she says. "All of a sudden sometimes I'd see a streetlight and it would look so beautiful, and I'd realize I hadn't seen stars in years. But sometimes just a streetlight can give you that same feeling when you're that deprived. Or a pigeon. Sometimes even a rat would make me feel like, 'Ah, there is a world out there.'"

This glory-from-grime theme isn't the only paradox at play in the world of the Handsome Family. Personally, they're a longshot matchup--Brett is from the Texas Panhandle and learned to sing in a Baptist church, Rennie is a Jewish girl from Long Island.

Musically, Brett's settings evoke Appalachia and Nashville archetypes, but as Rennie cheerily notes, "We don't live in a log cabin and smoke corncob pipes."

True enough. Brett, 38, holds a master's degree in music history at Stony Brook University in New York, where the two met as students. Rennie, 36, has a master's in creative writing from the University of Michigan, has published a book of short stories and is working on a novel.

Not that anyone is mistaking them for the Dogpatch house band. Brett's dry baritone attends Rennie's narratives with the riveting directness of a mountain balladeer, but that only sets off their quirks in greater relief.

Take the new album's "The Snow White Diner." In language that sounds like jotted notes, the singer describes eating in a restaurant while outside a car and its dead occupants are raised from a frozen lake. Why are the patrons in the next booth laughing, oblivious to the tragedy? They are deaf, it turns out, and maybe that's not such a bad thing to be.

"I think of myself as a story writer for sure," says Rennie, an admirer of Woolf, Faulkner, Kafka and Pynchon. "That's kind of the way I think of the lyrics, as really, really small stories, like little glimpses into something.

"I always found stories comforting, fairy tales and things like that. I remember reading 'The Little Mermaid,' the Grimms' fairy tale version, when I was a kid, and it's so sad and heartbreaking, and I cried and cried. But it was comforting. It made me feel like the world is a beautiful, mysterious place and it's not just what I see every day on the street. So it kind of gave me hope, even though it broke my heart at the same time."

That often applies to the songs on "Twilight," an alternately chilling, tender and whimsical series of vignettes full of ghostly apparitions and images of nature swamped by civilization. That might shape up as the Handsome Family's fundamental theme. The final song, "Peace in the Valley" suggests transcendence will come when the last shopping mall is closed and animals play in the halls.

"There is a certain hollowness to modern life," Rennie observes. "All over the country there's a certain uniformity. We're starting to all live this suburban sprawl life, and the traffic is really bad everywhere. All this big suburban dream that we had has not improved life.

"And these big giant superstores are supposed to make everything so convenient, but I'm always in tears at Home Depot because I can't find a screwdriver."

*

The Handsome Family, with W.A.C.O. and the Willard Grant Conspiracy, Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., Silver Lake, 9 p.m. $8. (213) 833-2843.

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