Brett and Rennie Sparks, a.k.a. The Handsome Family, have been releasing records for the better part of a decade now. Singing Bones, their sixth regular release (not counting the internet-only rarities disc Smothered and Covered in 2002 and a live set, Live at Schuba's earlier this year), is their first since moving from Chicago to Albuquerque.
Since their first record, the angry, punk-influenced Odessa, the Handsomes have generally grown progressively more "country" with each release. Along the way, they've created a sound that's all their own, a weird amalgam of gothic and twang, in a couple of main flavors: Gruesome traditional-style murder ballads of one kind or another, and modern tales of urban weirdness, in which anorexics starve themselves to death, milkmen in love with the moon climb skyscrapers, and deaf old women cackle in lakeside diners as the cars of murder-suicides are fished from the black waters. That the songs are often equally sad and funny is part of the appeal; the rest comes from Brett's deft melodies and deadpan deep-voiced delivery of Rennie's lyrics.
The setting of many of the songs on Singing Bones reflects the move from the urban blight of Chicago to the blasted desert-scapes of the Southwest. No more songs about snowy parking lots and elevated trains this time. Instead, the songs feature couples shooting their beer cans with rusty rifles while the desert sun sets in "Gail With the Golden Hair"; lonely shoppers wandering the aisles of the "24-Hour Store" as ghosts make the automatic doors open and close; and amphibians singing as a lost gold-miner dies in "The Song of a Hundred Toads."
If the setting has changed, the themes explored by Rennie Sparks in her minimalist, hyper-realistic lyrics remain the same. The natural world is eerily unsettling, and sometimes even malevolent: vultures circle screaming as Gail with the golden hair goes mad and runs through desert and town; "hideous mountains" and "twisted forests" loom over the fairy-tale castle of "Whitehaven"; the miner's horse and dog abandon him to the deadly golden sun and the singing toads. And civilization doesn't offer much respite. An office-worker named Lisa shudders inside her building, in which the computers, printers and elevators whisper just beyond hearing in "A Shadow Underneath," and those ghosts roam the aisles of midnight stores.
Sonically, the Handsomes have broadened their pallette, incorporating Southwestern sounds, rhythms and instruments. "Gail" is a Marty Robbins-style waltz-time ballad, and "Far From Any Road" incorporates Mexican-style horns, Spanish guitar and clicking castanets. There's even an a-capella number, a first for the Handsome Family -- actually, it's one song split into two tracks: "If the World Should End in Fire" and "If the World Should End in Ice." Brett's bass-baritone is multi-tracked into a hair-raising chorus, in the manner of an old Methodist hymn.
In addition to the usual guitars, banjo, bass and keyboards, a lot more instruments are used on this album, including pedal steel, mandolin, saw, organ, upright bass and real drums, with contributions from several guest musicians. A highlight is "Sleepy," which borrows its southern soul sound of loose harmonies, stuttering drums, wailing organ and lyrical steel guitar from The Band.
The Handsomes' trademark dark humor isn't quite as abundant. There are those singing toads, as well as an obsessed farmer takes the plunge to find out where all those old tractors, and other debris have disappeared to and why they never hit the bottom in "The Bottomless Hole." There's also a nifty cover of the traditional "Dry Bones," modeled on Bascom Lamar Lunsford's 1928 recording.
I find the emotional center of the album in "Fallen Peaches," a Civil War ballad with a supernatural twist. A soldier fleeing the enemy's bullets runs through an orchard and has some sort of epiphany as he holds a dying comrade in his arms -- or is it he who dies? And the chorus of "24-Hour Store," which supplies the album's title, has major "ear-worm" potential: "No, no one hears the singing bones/and no one sees the crying ghosts/and everyone thinks I'm alone, all alone."
Singing Bones has a transitional feel to it, as though the Sparkses are still finding their new voice in their new desert home. I'm curious to see where their twisted muse takes them next.