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'True Detective' music: 10 other great songs by the Handsome Family

February 27, 2014|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • The Handsome Family's Rennie and Brett Sparks, whose "Far From Any Home" opens the new HBO series "True Detective."
The Handsome Family's Rennie and Brett Sparks, whose "Far From… (The Handsome Family / Jason…)

Musically speaking, one of the best parts of the breakout success of “True Detective” is the window it opens into the world of the Handsome Family. The husband-wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks composed “Far From Any Road,” used each week in the HBO mystery’s opening credits, but that tells only a tiny part of their story.

For the last two decades the pair has been using the blueprints of old-time country and western balladry to create dark but often lovely narratives set in the present.  

Featuring songs in which worms “circle like sharks” waiting for death to come, their best work offers songcraft with the narrative drive of short stories. With lyrics on death and the afterlife, drunken heartache, twin sisters, benders in hotel bars and dogs chained to trees, the woes of the world's tallest man and the last few moments of Amelia Earhart’s life (“… she remembered picking lemons with William Randolph Hearst,” for your information), their tight compositions certainly deserve wider recognition, even if many of them call for a stiff drink afterward.

Music and 'True Detective': A playlist of grim songs scores HBO drama

Rennie writes most of the lyrics, and they’re something to behold. She was educated as a fiction writer under Charles Baxter at the University of Michigan, and had she not gone the way of the lyric her talent would have no doubt brought her acclaim through other platforms. Lucky for us, her gift with quick narrative found its perfect voice through guitarist/singer/long-suffering husband Brett, whose compositional skills give his wife’s words shape .

Below are 10 other songs besides “Far from Any Road.”  

1. “So Much Wine” (Live at McCabe’s, 2012)

A vivid tale from a wife to a husband that occurs over the course of Christmas Day, “So Much Wine” is the perfect introduction to the Family’s world. Filled with morbid wit about a harrowing few hours, the song opens as an already drunk spouse has thrown his clothes out the window, burned his hair and walked over chairs. “But when you fell asleep with blood on your teeth,” sing the pair in unison, “I got in my car and drove away.”

The two carry into the chorus with a tender urgency:  “Listen to me, butterfly/There’s only so much wine you can drink in one life/But it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass.” Perhaps best known as one of a few Handsome Family songs Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy performs live – they all lived in Chicago at the same time – “So Much Wine” is a little pearl of destruction. Its cutaway to a field beneath stars is perfect: “As meteors died and shot across the sky, I thought about your sad, shining eyes.”

2. “Drunk by Noon” (as performed by Sally Timms)

This list could be made entirely of drinking songs, but one of the most enduring of the lot is “Drunk by Noon,” a pessimistic ditty about life spent wallowing that opens with a surreal scene featuring “a poodle that thought he was a cowboy” and moves to a series of lines as funny as they are defeatist. “Sometimes I flap my arms like a hummingbird, just to remind myself I’ll never fly,” sings Brett in rich baritone. “Sometimes I burn my arms with cigarettes, just to pretend I won’t scream when I die.” The singer confesses that sometimes he can’t wait to get cancer, “at least then I’d get to watch TV all day.”

Then, the bummer chorus:  “If my life was as long as the moon, I’d still be jealous of the sun/If my life lasted only one day, I’d still be drunk by noon.”

3. “Beautiful William”

This much we know: The mysterious man in “Beautiful William” drives a convertible, has short curly hair and wears gold rings. He vanished one morning before dawn, and didn’t bother to turn off the lights or the sprinkler system. All this information is conveyed in the first few lines, along with a mention of two different women, Polly from Red River and Rose from Green Falls. They are pretty upset. “Why would he leave us/Why would he leave us this way?” The question is never answered in “Beautiful William,” but no matter. The Polaroid moment feels like something David O. Russell might direct.

4. “Birds You Cannot See”

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