August 31, 2008
Record Review: Through The Trees
The Handsome Family
Through The Trees
1998 | Carrot Top
The Handsome Family, a husband/wife duo from Albuquerque, NM, sounds like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” set to music. Their sound, all acoustic guitars, autoharps and cellos, is what “alternative country” means to me. Through The Trees is a sordid collection of songs about the underbelly of American life.
Brett Sparks writes the music, revolving mainly around his gently but firmly strummed acoustic guitar. Lead electric guitar, unadorned even by reverb, moves the rhythm along with a gently propulsiveness not unlike Luther Perkins did for Johnny Cash’s Sun Records singles. Rhythm proper is provided by a drum machine, which should belie the Handsome Family’s americana sound, but rather, this idiosyncrasy instead adds to their charm. Rennie Sparks, an author in her own right, pens all of the lyrics, although it’s hard to tell which member is responsible for the dark themes prevalent on Through The Trees. On the one hand, Spark’s words, with choruses like “This is why people OD on pills/ and jump from The Golden Gate Bridge,” seem to be the source for the band’s dark sound. After all, the words, unadorned by music, would still be dark, Gothic and about death, right? But then Spark’s weird, acoustic/electronic music sounds so organically a part of the lyrics that it’s nigh impossible to pick them apart. Maybe the Sparks’ are so in tune with each other that they work subconsciously, getting their demons out together, neither acting as progenitor of the darkness.
File Through The Trees, and indeed any other Handsome Family record, directly between American Recordings-era Johnny Cash – Brett’s deep baritone is a dead ringer for Cash’s, minus about fifty years, and I See A Darkness-era Bonnie “Prince” Billy – lyrical kin, somber songs that are somehow uplifting at the same time.
by Brook Pridemore