The Handsome house of horror

The world's first manic depressive, surrealist alt.country comedy double act take to the stage casually enough, Rennie Sparks - think Alicia Silverstone with a PhD in Gothic irony - sorting out oddments from her handbag while husband Brett - think 200lb Baptist Bull In A China Shop - plugs in the computer from which half their music will come.

The reported past of this pair has overwhelmed everything else about them: Brett's 1995 collapse into a vortex of spiritual visions while Rennie looked on, loving his insane insights, until bipolar manic depression was diagnosed, and extinguished with Lithium.

But how much this actually has to do with the Handsome Family's music is moot. It's Rennie who writes their lyrics, with their focus on red-blooded nature, hallucinatory rapture and alcoholic derangement, and Brett who underpins them with arrangements of battered acoustic instruments and spectral synthesiser (heard to superlative effect on current LP In the Air).

If this is comedy, it's of the situation kind, with Rennie playing the part of the impishly acid-tongued wife of an amiable touring country singer. She gently derides all his ambitions when she's not simply ignoring them for her own improvised, unpredictable monologues on subjects from club-footed wooden legs to Ella Fitzgerald's legless death, the line between surreal whimsy and stark horror thinning, as in her lyrics.

"That isn't funny. Why are you saying that?" wonders Brett, but it's all grist to her observant mind. The grimmer songs are almost incidental to this public stream of happy consciousness, perhaps a true reflection of the pair's emotional state.

It's left to Brett to carry the songs when they do come, and again their sombre, mesmeric mood is disrupted. He can hit Johnny Cash's country bass croon or a bible-basher's boom, but also slips in hillbilly hiccups, warping his mouth and exaggeratedly pursing his lips. Rennie, standing beside him, holds what looks like a rusting 19th-century synthesiser tight like it's a baby, then sucks strange sounds from its innards with a tube, eyes closed, mouth a playful smirk.

Really great work such as "A Beautiful Thing", an impressionistic reverie on drink-crumpled dreams - "I wanted to tell you all the ways that I loved you but, instead I got sick on the train" - only barely breaks through the sensory overload that these two people provide by simply standing up there on stage.

"These songs haven't been scary enough," Rennie eventually realises, and on the subsequent likes of "Poor, Poor Lenore", Brett's voice softens, and at last there's a mood you have to strain to catch. Still, you've got the record for that. Live, the lunatic laughs just keep coming.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project