Music critic and self-styled cultural historian Greil Marcus can be blamed for and credited with many things in the last 30 years or so, creating an American music mythology that has more to do with what he wants American music to be than what it really was or is. This mythologizing has led to some great writing (Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces) and a fair amount of crackpot theorizing (Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley In a Land Of No Alternatives).
Marcus knows the danger of plumbing for an elusive purity in music, but in the last few years, he has fallen prey to this predictable trap by championing a form of American roots music (see Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes). For Marcus, it seems that American music was invented wholly by musicologist Harry Smith on his early-'50s Folkways compilation Anthology Of American Folk Music, with that aesthetic rediscovered by Bob Dylan in collaboration with the Band on The Basement Tapes in '66 and '67. One could say that, in a major way, Marcus has helped to bring about the "Harry Smithization" of American music, resulting in numerous singers and musicians trying their hand at murder ballads and paeans to cheap corn liquor. Some of that mythic Americana roots fodder has been okay. Much of it, plain awful.
But Marcus does deserve a measure of credit for his notable championing of husband-and-wife indie duo the Handsome Family as on a par with his beloved Smith/Dylan/Band trinity. With their 2001 release Twilight, the Handsome Family took more than a few small steps out of the "Greil ghetto" by recording in their living room using a Macintosh G3 and Pro Tools, a rather sophisticated recording approach for them. They retained their "purity" while creating a slightly slicker hybrid compared to the recordings that came before. The production on Twilight is pretty sparse, but there's a pop singer of sorts struggling to get out.
That emerging crooner would be Brett Sparks. As on previous recordings, wife Rennie handles the lyrics and husband Brett plays most of the music and sings. Now living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the couple were based in Chicago for a number of years. Their lives in that city informed and infused much of their recorded work with tales of urban misery; Twilight is their goodbye to Chicago. Like all previous Handsome outings, it has its share of creepy, dark lyrics.
Pro Tools gave the Handsome Family a chance to use a conventional-sounding bass-and-drums foundation on most of the record's songs. On 1998's Through the Trees and 2000's In the Air, Brett and Rennie utilized either a cheap-sounding drum machine or an odd collection of percussion instruments as drum tracks. The pairing of the drum machine or a plastic garbage pail with Rennie's solid, dry bass-playing gave the music an odd flavor. The sound was intentionally quirky and therefore distanced from the horrors they were singing about on those two recordings.
By using a more conventional guitar/bass/drums foundation on Twilight, the Handsome Family comes across as perverse and sincere at the same time. It's like they were hedging their bets and diluting their emotional impact by employing nonstandard instrumentation on earlier recordings. Songs about murder, madness, and suicide can sound kind of ironic and cute if they're played on exotic instruments. Those same songs sound threatening and disturbing when a more conventional country-music formula is used.
Remember "Psycho," Leon Payne's tribute to deranged mass murderer Charles Whitman (Elvis Costello did a version on his 1980 country album Blue), and how the MOR Nashville backing track contrasted with the unhinged lyrics and vocal delivery?
Well, a lot of Twilight is like that grotesque ditty because the words are unsettling and the music is so, well, normal-sounding. A murder ballad played on an autoharp and mandolin is kind of sweet and detached. A murder ballad with a somewhat lush country-music production is downright unnerving. And that's what the Handsome Family opts for on their latest.
Plenty has been written about Rennie's lyrics. They have been praised as short stories à la Flannery O'Connor, as brief fables that function as literature on their own without accompanying music or Brett's vocals. They're not quite poetry, more like plain speech that startles and amuses. Many of her lyrics are bleak but almost always tangibly funny as well. They stand alone quite well. However, with a voice as expressive and heartbreaking as her husband's, they don't have to. There are echoes of Charley Pride, Scott Walker, Richard Manuel of the Band (if Manuel had been a baritone; Brett has the late singer's gift for languid, liquid phrasing), and numerous other classic country and pop singers in Brett's voice.
Greil Marcus got it right for once when he said that the Handsome Family had taken up Harry Smith's mantle more fully than anybody else these days. And that's not a myth, by the way.