Lovely Alibis and Beautiful Persistence
Music for the long attention span listener
The Handsome Family
Listening to the superb latest album Wilderness by the New Mexico outfit The Handsome Family makes this writer realize that, generally, we have some pretty low expectations for lyricists in popular music, which is too bad. Weak lyrics should be judged harshly. This writer brings this up because the songs on Wilderness are so richly written with so many vivid descriptions and imaginative plots that they truly put most so-called songwriters to shame.
The core of The Handsome Family is the husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks—Brett is the primary composer while Rennie is the lyricist, and both sing their macabre and inventive Americana with country and folk roots, reminiscent of Neil Young, with Brett’s deep baritone voice perhaps appealing to Leonard Cohen fans. Budding writers are often told that no detail is too small, and the tiny, precise details of Rennie’s songwriting brings to life stunningly clear scenarios, like a criminal weaving an intricate yet false alibi to seem credible.
Wilderness is a loose concept album, with each title taking the name of a different animal, but the stories are wide-ranging tales of death, insanity, shape-shifting and fantasy. The pedal-steel inflected “Owls” is a Southern Gothic story of a man going crazy in a zoo-like, museum-like mansion; Brett sings, “The owls, they mock me and have stolen my pills.”
Perhaps the most mind-bendingly creative song is “Caterpillars,” about a girl who is haunted by a persistent 60-cycle hum after being struck by lightning and who escapes to South America and is enveloped by insects into a cocoon, awaiting her metamorphosis. While the lyrics are rightfully in the spotlight, the music features non-flashy arrangements, with one highlight being the gorgeous, ambling tabla and organ-enhanced “Gulls.”
Wilderness is a testament to the possibilities of songwriting, which are rarely fully explored nowadays.
There is a lingering fear in this writer’s mind that current and future generations that have whole-heartedly embraced and outright demanded the convenience of instant gratification in media, communication and commerce are whittling away their own attention spans unknowingly.
Seemingly as an alternative to music for audiences with such attention spans is the work of the Australian instrumental trio The Necks, which has been creating lengthy improvised pieces and marking out its own expansive musical personality for more than 20 years. In terms of genres, despite the temptation to classify, it’s neither really jazz, nor ambient music, and despite being genre-defying, the use of patterns keeps it outside the free-improv realm.
If pressed, this writer would call it “minimalist improv,” and disparate musical siblings are evoked, such as pianist Harold Budd, the spacious moments of NEU! and even the freely-flowing sound streams of Indian ragas.
Over the 68 minutes of Open, there is a huge amount of restraint, avoiding any temptation to have obvious payoffs in the form of dramatic crests and swells. Instead, the gorgeous patience of Open allows ideas to unfurl in a contemplative, determined manner, but with a drifting lightness that is soothing and nourishing.
Open is a sequence of placid moments, beginning with a monochord (one-stringed instrument) sounding like a hammered dulcimer and chimes, before simple bass patterns from Lloyd Swanton and Chris Abrahams’ wandering piano melodies enter. Drummer Tony Buck shows considerable self-control, with measured hi-hat taps, sporadic bass and snare drum beats, and gentle tom rumbles, and various textures emerge gingerly, like modulating organ chords and faint electronics.
Technology has made it easier today for attention seekers to indulge their whims, but those who shout the loudest are rarely the most interesting; similarly, the reserved, beautiful persistence of Open is evidence that a mastery of subtlety can make for fascinating listening.