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The Guardian

He's eaten cat food. She thinks God is a helicopter by Iain Aitch

Husband and wife duo The Handsome Family are at the fore of a distinctly urban new wave of country music — variously referred to as alt.country or Insurgent Country —that has grown up in the bars of Chicago. But to hear their songs it is hard not to imagine them hunting squirrels in the backwoods. Their recent CD, In the Air, is so brimming with nature that you feel that it should have been recorded on a chunk of mighty Redwood chopped by the duo themselves rather than on the brittle plastic of a compact disc. Dogs leap, birds sing, cicadas hiss and an awful lot of things die.

“I’m kind of obsessed with the two sides of nature,” says lyricist Rennie Sparks. “The beautiful, tranquil side of it, like: ‘oh look at that cute little kitten’. And the really horrible, dangerous and bloodthirsty side of it like: ‘boy, that alligator ate that zebra in one bite’. I watch a lot of nature shows on TV where it’s just all one big bloodbath.”

Rennie and husband Brett, who writes the music and sings most of the songs, are perhaps a little too morbid for mainstream American tastes. They have often been referred to as The Manson Family or The Addams Family by less kind reviewers who fail to see the beauty in the Rennie’s macabre lyrics.

Their previous CD, 1998’s Through the Trees, was possibly the darkest recording to come out of the US this side of death metal. It opened with a track featuring the distinctly downbeat chorus: “This is why people OD on pills and jump from the Golden Gate Bridge” and closed with the true story of Brett’s stay in a mental hospital, with him strapped to a bed quoting Nietzsche. In 1995, during the recording of their second CD, Milk and Scissors, Brett’s manic-depression had taken such a hold that Rennie was forced to check him in to the hospital for his own protection. He was spending wildly, drinking heavily and had taken to eating cat food.

“I was delusional,” he says. “Incapable of getting anything done. I really thought I was the Messiah. I was writing my own bible and starting fires in the apartment. I was a fucking lunatic. I would go two weeks at a time without sleeping, I was down to about 145 pounds. So I went to the nut-house for a few weeks, they put me on Lithium among other things. Long-term Lithium which I am still taking to this day.” Rennie has also had her own share of problems with depression and thoughts of suicide and, like Brett, is still taking the pills.

Religion seems to loom large over the work of The Handsome Family. Aside from scribing his own Bible, Brett was brought up a Southern Baptist and it was in church that he learned about music and how to sing in such a delightfully doomy baritone. He has also been influenced by The Louvin Brothers, a 1950s two brother Christian country act whose cautionary tales were every bit as dark as The Handsome Family’s.

Rennie was brought up as a Jew in New York but has also dabbled with some less than orthodox spiritual beliefs such as those in the lyric for When That Helicopter Comes – the story of the second coming with helicopters taking the place of Jesus. “I’ve always been obsessed with helicopters,” she says. “When I was little I thought God was a helicopter. I had all these feelings that after I died I would turn into a helicopter.”

It is surprising to learn that lurking behind the rolling hills and falling trees of In the Air is the latest in technology. The couple may have recorded the album in their living room, but it was all done on a Macintosh G3 computer – hardly a traditional piece of country kit. But then neither was the drum machine that regimented their previous album, the use of which was intended to completely alienate traditionalists in the alt.country scene. “It was completely out of spite,” says Brett. “Musically it did work and I liked it a lot, but I thought that people would be really critical of that. But that record was on every critics top ten list in the US last year. It surprised the hell out of me.”

Oddly, Chicago’s country revival was largely kick-started by two ex-pat members of Leeds art-punks The Mekons who both now live in the city. Jon Langford seems to be at the centre of any drunken guitar-led stomp worthy of mention with his various bands, such as The Waco Brothers who evoke the spirit of the pre-born again Johnny Cash. Whilst sweet-voiced Sally Timms performs as a solo singer not afraid to tackle the odd Dolly Parton number. She is a firm fan of The Handsome Family and has covered several of their songs, including two on her latest release Cowboys Sally’s Twilight Laments for Lost Buckaroos. “They take the best of the country tradition and then update it in the only way that can make sense as songwriters from an urban background,” she says. “There's an element of camp to what they do, but beneath that you find serious little morality tales, a little like the Brothers Grimm.”

These morality lessons are obviously not lost on Brett who at least seems to have learned to go a little steady on the drink. “My classic joke is that if I get drunk and act like an asshole then Rennie’s going to write a song about it and I’m going to have to sing it over and over,” he says. “My punishment is having her pull my spiritual trousers down every night.”

All content copyright © 2012 Iain Aitch


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