Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Handsome Family

  • Through the Trees [Carrot Top, 1997] ***
  • Down in the Valley [Independent, 1999] A-
  • In the Air [Carrot Top, 2000] A-
  • Twilight [Carrot Top, 2001] A-
  • Live at Schuba's Tavern [DCN, 2002] A-
  • Singing Bones [Carrot Top, 2003] ***
  • Last Days of Wonder [Carrot Top, 2006] A-
  • Honey Moon [Carrot Top, 2009] **
  • Wilderness [Carrot Top, 2013] A-
  • Unseen [Carrot Top, 2016] ***

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Through the Trees [Carrot Top, 1997]
digging for the great elusive motherlode of American tragic deadpan ("Weightless Again," "The Woman Downstairs," "Cathedrals") ***

Down in the Valley [Independent, 1999]
The reason these alt-country cult heroes stir up so much humbug is that when Rennie Sparks's lyrics don't settle for "dark," or Brett Sparks's music for lo-fi dirge, they can be miraculous. Of course Brett's no Acuff or Haggard; his static baritone barely negotiates the notes. But on this putatively Ireland-only best-of, he and his wordless wife quietly claim traditional country music for the surreal, the mordant, and the psychotic. They require attentive listening. Give it to them and you'll leave a different if not necessarily happier person. A-

In the Air [Carrot Top, 2000]
The reason these alt-country cult heroes stir up so much humbug is that they do sometimes strike the great elusive motherlode of American tragic deadpan. When Rennie Sparks's lyrics don't settle for "dark," or Brett Sparks's music for lo-fi dirge, they can be miraculous. Next time you're in Dublin, be sure to pick up the Ireland-only '90 best-of Down in the Valley, on Independent. And in the meantime believe that their fourth and best album is almost as good. Of course Brett's no Acuff or Haggard; his static baritone barely negotiates the notes. But as the quietly elaborate direct-to-Mac arrangements swell unassumingly beneath haunting verses and the occasional killer refrain, Rennie's conceits hit home. "I shouldn't have smuggled in that bottle of gin because after the film I could hardly walk"? "Tuesday at dawn Michael's glasses washed ashore with a Styrofoam box and two broken oars"? If that's not real life, it certainly stands as symbolic truth. A-

Twilight [Carrot Top, 2001]
At a moment when any depressive with a good line of patter is positioned to convince disaster-dazed dissidents he's the prophet Jeremiah, lyricist Rennie Sparks and her doleful husband and music provider Bret deliver a new sheaf of morbid songs. These feel right even when their melodies dim out, in part because they aspire to mood rather than prophecy. More than half concern or mention animals, usually but not always still alive. One significant exception is a billion passenger pigeons, another the dog, cat, gerbils, goldfish, rabbit, chipmunk, squirrel, and insects to whom she/he bids so long. Right, the pets are supposed to be funny, in a morbid way. None of the humans who populate this album are so lucky. A few of them are deaf or blind, though. A-

Live at Schuba's Tavern [DCN, 2002]
Until now the most efficient way to acquire a taste for Rennie and Brett's weird tales was the Ireland-only Down in the Valley comp. This night of greatest whatevers is longer, cheaper, and better. Since they make what little music there is themselves, they've got no production values to lose. Brett's deep monotone loosens up live. And the onstage bickering about magic crystals of overpriced kitty litter and the correct pronunciation of "Vienna sausage" normalize their obsession with the grotesque, the doleful, and the other side of eternity's divide. Sounds like they drive around America picking up gossip at roadside attractions, filling stations, ice cream socials, and bars serving 3.2 beer. Does "Here in the bipolar ward/If you shower you get a gold star" reflect personal experience? So I'm led to understand. But if they weren't past that experience, Rennie wouldn't write about it so well, and Brett wouldn't sing about it at all. A-

Singing Bones [Carrot Top, 2003]
Holding the mysteries of death in this old land to a (temporary) draw ("The Bottomless Hole," "Gail With the Golden Hair"). ***

Last Days of Wonder [Carrot Top, 2006]
At her best--which must not come easy, or they'd release more and more consistent albums--Rennie Sparks is a great American realist. Who can resist a recollection that begins, "I can see you standing there in your grass-stained underwear," or deny her twin visions of existential displacement in airports? But when you have to struggle to realize that "Our Blue Sky" is a global-warming warning that belongs on television, is the problem really the writing, or eternally impassive Brett Sparks feeling more depressed than usual? My theory is that when his wife hits one good, his voice gets lifted. A-

Honey Moon [Carrot Top, 2009]
Not that Brett doesn't adore Rennie as they honor 20 years of marriage, just that he has trouble telling the world about it ("Wild Wood," "Darling, My Darling"). **

Wilderness [Carrot Top, 2013]
Since each of the 12 songs is named after an animal--including just one mammal, and a wildebeest at that--you expect a zoological concept album. In fact, however, the title creatures all have walk-ons, fly-ons, swim-ons, or crawl-ons, even the conquering flies who think General Custer looks so "beautiful" dead. Yet the only true ringer is a magic lizard whose bite requires a witchcraft cure--in all the rest, the animals are intimates of a natural world humans navigate clumsily and uncomprehendingly except in "Frogs," where the housebound are bidden to tromp down through the mud and hear their amphibian song. As always, the tales are Rennie Sparks's, the teller her dour husband Brett, and the tales themselves are why you first listen. But these are so fine you don't mind listening again. And as you do, you start noticing how deftly Brett negotiates lines and stanzas that aren't as blockish as their meter and his voice make you think. And then you listen to this uningratiating music some more. A-

Unseen [Carrot Top, 2016]
In this unpoetically dark time, only the social realism that has never been their style of pessimism seems to truly . . . can I say spark them? they're way too dour to enliven ("Back in My Day," "Gold") ***