FIRST PUBLISHED AT ALTSOUNDS.COM
The Handsome Family’s (aka Brett & Rennie Sparks) eighth album ‘Honey Moon’ is a collection of love songs “featuring tales of intimate insects and lovers kissing in wet caves”, released to mark their 20th wedding anniversary. Maintaining the gothic Americana Family template of previous albums, ‘Honey Moon’ blends the baroque with spectral, old-time country atmospherics and shades of bluegrass and ragtime. The cinematic gloominess and image-rich romanticism make The Handsome Family as much an heir to Nick Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’ as to the current crop of alt-country/folk revivalists, but the banjo and steel guitar keep this sonically rooted in US music traditions.
“I am the puddles in the street waiting for your falling leaves. Wind your vines around me, drop your branches in my path”, croons Brett Sparks with his chesty baritone on opener ‘Linger, Let Me Linger’, a baroque, cello-led waltz. His rendering of images (“Hearts drawn on a dusty window pane / A love note lying in the road / a car circling round a darkened street / a woman crying on the phone”) could have been taken at random from a collection of William Eggleston photographs. Not so much tongue-in-cheek as slightly flat footed in its insistence in imbuing the everyday with a poetic charge, it’s nevertheless beguiling, sensual stuff, with some lovely low-end guitar work. Texturally ‘Little Sparrows’ is a real contrast, replacing the autumnal strings of the opener with jaunty country: all noodly steel-pedal twang, scorched asphalt and chrome. Listen carefully, though, and you will hear Brett imagining himself as Jonah, giving himself up to the whale, alongside ruminations on “paper cups blowing down the street” and “ants winding through the tangled weeds”. And concerning the Little Sparrows of the title, Brett asks: “Where you’re going I don’t care, take me with you when you go”, a statement so trite it’s hard not to think it ironic.
Brett’s singing varies from the posturing, more histrionic strains of the opener and the bizarrely-worded ‘The Loneliness of Magnets’ to more understated country standards like ‘Wild Wood’ – but is best when, as on ‘My Friend’, he deliberately fails to hit the high notes with a Kurt Wagner-esque pathos. In fact a number of tracks recall Lambchop, even if ‘Honey Moon’ sounds a little deliberate in comparison to the subtler charms of, say, ‘Nixon‘. Few of Honey Moon’s tracks last longer than three minutes, but the thoughtful arrangements and enchanted ambience gives it substance, even if lyrically the album is often daydreamy and somewhat inconsequential. Admittedly, the theme gets a little thin over Honey Moon’s course, and sometimes I found myself wishing Mr & Mrs Sparks would allow the music to expand and evolve, rather than limiting it to the duration of the song-cycle.
There are hints of David Lynch’s American underworld sewn into the mix, for instance the noirish surf guitar of ‘A Thousand Diamond Rings’ and ‘The Winding Corn Maze’ recall both Angelo Badalamente and Chris Isaak’s melancholic reimagining of early rock and roll. Curious studio trickery abounds: the weirdly shuffling ‘Love is Like’ has a hint of Animal Collective’s out of box thinking about it, the wonky organs and glockenspiel sound as if they are crackling out of a short-wave radio set. ‘The Petrofied Forrest’ – one of the album’s stand out tracks – marries natural imagery to a more tangible, albeit conventional, sense of loss. “Raindrops and Roses fell from the Heavens” he begins, rather over-egging the drama, before bringing it a little closer to earth: “When you left me alone, the sky turned to stone … why did you go?” When revisiting diner and tumbleweed old-time country, it feels exactly that: revisited, abstracted by nostalgia, cinematic and occasionally a little contrived; for instance the somnambulant bluegrass of ‘When you Whispered’ and ‘The Loneliness of Magnets’, with its whistling and high-end mandolin playing.
There is so much to enjoy in the dreamy detachment of the music that the myth-making in the lyrics comes across as a bit clumsy and superfluous. Thus ‘Honey Moon’, while very accomplished and often beautiful, sometimes seems the work of a band who are trying a little too hard to create a certain impression and in the process unneccesarily rendering their music a bit oblique or impersonal. However, fans of Smog, Nick Cave and Lambchop, or recent albums by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, James Jackson Toth and Micah P Hinson’s ‘Red Empire Orchestra‘ will find plenty to enjoy here.