Hollow by The Handsome FamilyRelease date: September 8, 2023
Label: Loose Music
I’m delighted to be able to write some words about some long-lost friends. I’ve a few CDs in the archives from American band The Handsome Family. The wife/husband members Rennie and Brett Sparks have been merrily battering away at some unique sounding “Western Gothic” for over 30 years. Rennie says “We’re astonished to be breathing, let alone still be inspired to write songs and sing together”. Their latest album, their eleventh, entitled Hollow is a delightful little collection of music that creates a certain feeling in your head. No-one else I know comes close to transporting you away so vividly as The Handsome Family. They are truly unique in that respect.
Lyricist Rennie comes up with the words that combine with Brett’s appreciation of country, both modern and old. Their music has been covered by Jeff Tweedy, Andrew Bird and Phoebe Bridgers. You’ve probably heard them without knowing as their song ‘Far From Any Road’ was the them music to the first series of HBO show True Detective.
The album opens with the dream inspired ‘Joseph’, full of rich instrumentation intricately arranged with many layers of little hooks. Piano flourishes embellish the stately tempo and heart-warming melodies. Rennie woke up screaming in the middle of the night with the words “Come into the circle Joseph! There’s no moon tonight” and Brett thought that was perfect for a chorus. The easy rolling ‘Two Black Sheep’ has a darker hue with ghostly tones and a hip-hop beat in the vein of Beck’s ‘Loser’. Bordering on the kind of song we used to sing in Sunday School, the upbeat ‘The King Of Everything’ pops along on a sprightly bedrock of spidery harpsichord.
Leading song ‘Skunks’ has a gorgeous rolling piano motif intertwined with a lovely shuffling beat and a monolithic bass to truly stunning effect. Think of a bar band in Twin Peaks. I can’t think of any other band who would be singing “Yes we have live bait” and “Squirrels in the basement, raccoons in the walls”! Next up ‘The Oldest Water’ is an all-out country ballad resplendent with some delightful plucking of mandolin, courtesy of Dave “Guts” Gutierrez. ‘Mothballs’ is a slow and sad lament with lovely harmonies that’s almost hymnal despite being inspired by Aleister Crowley. In ’Shady Lake’ Brett reaches higher from his dusky baritone for some notes that deny him access, but it’s a tender country ballad none the less.
The spirited ‘To The Oaks’ is a slightly more up-tempo ditty that appeals less to me as I find the band most effective when they’re in ballad mode. This is exemplified in ‘Strawberry Moon’, a gorgeous swooning torch song with a chorus of crickets chirping throughout. With mentions of porches and a clicking backbeat, they transport you way out west and it’s mesmerising. ‘Invisible Man’ has some close harmony barber shop quartet style singing, reminding me of the excellent Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. My late Father would have loved this song. A younger me would have hated it but I can appreciate this kind of music so much better now and this song’s a complete delight and incredibly uplifting. I’ve mentioned it before but put a pedal steel guitar onto a song and I’ll love it. Album closer ‘Good Night’ is a lovely lament of swooning tones and has a sweet endearing melody with Rennie joining in with some honey toned harmonies. It’s became the set closer for the band and you can hear why, it would send you into the night with a lovely warm fuzzy feeling.
Without doubt, The Handsome Family are something of an acquired taste. Lifted away from a setting like the aforementioned TV show theme and I feel the need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy their music. I first heard this album out in the arse end of nowhere, with cows peering over hedges at me and mountains in the distance. That was a perfect accompaniment to the countrified atmospherics the band create. There’s no better way to escape your concrete existence and daily humdrum. Hollow is a beautiful record bursting with character, stunning arrangements, and damn fine tunes.