I don’t live in David Lynch land, I just live in Belfast. That ‘weird America’ thing doesn’t happen here. Generally.
The Handsome Family’s latest offering managed to land me right in the middle of weird America last week though.
I was stopped at traffic lights on a slow sunny Sunday. As “Tiny Tina” from the Handsome’s new album Unseen played in the car, I noticed on the far side of the road a trendy youth talking agitatedly to himself as he walked past. He was starting to vaguely gesticulate and his volume was going up when I detected a movement at the other side of my car. It was a small child of indeterminate gender on a bike, giving me the fingers and mouthing “your car is shit.”
“Drinks just a thimble of water/eats just a handful of straw …” intoned the Handsome Family’s Brett Sparks meanwhile from the speakers. The Calliope music whistled and chugged alongside Rennie Sparks’ quavers as they harmonised about never getting to see the world’s smallest horse. My young friend’s face had become mildly distorted as he/she upped the ante in the finger waving department. The youth across the road had become sweary. A car behind me beeped its horn as the lights had changed and I hadn’t moved. The child’s face took on a sneer; I jolted hurriedly away from weird land. I’d officially been appointed the status of a slug. A slug that drives a shit car.
Don’t get me wrong, that scene in so many ways is strangely, quintessentially Belfast, or Ireland maybe. But there is something in the context-altering powers of the Handsome Family’s music that transports every sense I have of that 40 second scene to Twin Peaks. There is something in their very singular world view that keeps a scary clown mask under the bed, beside the family photos, the box of shells and the third dress you’ve bought this month from a shopping channel and haven’t even opened yet.
This album is sturdy Handsome Family third dimension otherworldliness. In that there are no departures. It paints its pictures in primary colours, you think you’ve taken in the scene, then you have an eerie feeling the eyes are watching you as you walk away.
Take “Back in my Day” for example; where the intro intones a sad, thoughtful melancholy, then Brett’s crooning baritone rolls in with reminiscences of a utopian past “where everything was better, darker and deep.” This song straddles a line. The words have been written with rose tinted glasses, yet we still need to bow to the fact that the childhoods of previous generations have allowed more space for things to be unknown, for more – or at least longer lasting innocence, for monsters to be in the sea instead of the chatrooms.
Sir William Crookes was a chemist, physicist, pioneer of the original vacuum tube, and a spiritualist of whom it was said “his desire to believe blinded him to the chicanery of his psychic subjects.” This has everything that would attract the Handsome Family to write a song about it, and they did. Harpsichord opens “Gentlemen,” and plays right through as the renowned scientist describes how the apparatus he has invented will work, as he tries to convince the gentlemen of what he has witnessed. “Gentlemen the lights blew out/gentlemen the curtains moved …” There’s a slight whiff of the Mekons in the haunting, Englified, shanty, overdubbed chorus by Brett at the end of the song. Despite the curiousness of the tale, William Crookes is afforded a certain respect. The song feels more like a tribute than a joke.
There’s more of course. Rennie’s segments in “The Sea Rose” sound like Freakwater singing a Monkees’ song. And the mildly hypnotic hums and harmonies on the album’s first single “Gold,” offer a classic Handsome Family tale of banditry and dusty shoot outs (based on a true event when dollar bills blew into Brett’s face as he stood in a car park). Indeed I was first introduced to the song a long year ago at a gig in Belfast where they told us it was “inspired by all the people in New Mexico who are going to, or coming out of jail.”
Rennie and Brett Sparks recorded Unseen at their home studio, apparently at night time. If you like the sound and the cut of the Handsome Family you’ll enjoy the sound and the cut of this album. It’s released today, 16th September.