The Handsome house of horror

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The Independent Culture

The world's first manic depressive, surrealist 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.