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Thursday, June 15, 2006 08:02 am

Bringing out the best

Isn’t it a Wonder, how two talented people bring out the best in each other?

The Handsome Family Last Days of Wonder (Carrot Top)
At least half of all marriages end in divorce, and the rate at which bands break up has to be even higher, so what are the odds that a husband-and-wife band could succeed in the long run? Whatever they are, Brett and Rennie Sparks are beating them. The Sparkses have been married for 18 years, and they’ve spent the last dozen of them as the Handsome Family, a bent and beautiful little band whose long, prolific career is a case study in the virtues of what marriage counselors call the equitable division of labor. Rennie, a published author, writes all the lyrics; Brett, a former music major, writes all the music and records it on a Mac in the couple’s garage. They each play instruments and sing, although Brett does the bulk of both. Whereas most bands collapse under the weight of too many contending egos, the two members of the Handsome Family know their place; by divvying up the compositional chores, they complement, rather than compete against, each other. On Last Days of Wonder, the system is working better than ever. Rennie’s lyrics are heartbreaking and hilarious, distilling a weird loveliness out of the sad detritus of daily life. Illegal dumping sites, the automatic sinks in airport restrooms, golf carts in ditches, billboards full of singing birds — all are portals to the miraculous, and nature, red in tooth and claw, is both our solace and our undoing. A smiling girl at a drive-thru window dispenses a large iced tea, an extra packet of ketchup, a small bag of onion rings, and a supersized epiphany; two drunks in a graveyard are transfixed by the security lights swaying in the trees overhead; a hunter mistakes a wild boar for his one true love. “Tesla’s Hotel Room” touchingly describes the final days of the great inventor: “Nicola Tesla in the Hotel New Yorker nursing sick pigeons by the open window. Dreamed of a death ray to disintegrate matter. Detected Morse code from faraway planets.” Another standout, “Our Blue Sky,” asks a series of questions that we all wish Jerry Falwell would answer: “Could you love God if he didn’t love you more than rivers, snakes, or wind? Could you share heaven with black buzzing flies?”
Brett’s music is especially rich and varied this time around, a wildly inventive blend of retro and modern. In addition to acoustic guitars, ukeleles, banjos, and autoharps — all the old-timey accoutrements that, along with his plangent baritone, cause the Handsome Family to be saddled with such deeply inadequate labels as “alt-country” and “Gothic Americana” — he uses a wide array of samples and experimental production techniques. “Beautiful William,” an ethereal waltz about a man who suddenly disappears, pairs a glass armonica synthesizer patch with bowed crystal wineglasses. The Tom Waits-ian “These Golden Jewels” buttresses a Mellotron tape loop with an eerie musical saw played by actual Waits collaborator David Coulter, who e-mailed his part from London. Rather than use a drum machine, as on previous Handsome Family recordings, Brett recorded each element of a drum kit separately in real time and spliced them all together on the computer. Last Days of Wonder is greater than the sum of its parts, though, and that’s the best thing about it. You could write an entire essay about Brett’s genius studio gimcrackery, another one about Rennie’s eschatological obsessions, but that would be just part of the picture. The real magic happens when you put it all together, when you hear Rennie singing Brett’s melodies, Brett singing Rennie’s words, the glorious symbiosis that happens when two talented people bring out the best in each other. A wonder, indeed.
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