The Handsome house of horror
Friday 24 March 2000
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.
Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'music
Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 iPhone 6 review: bigger, thinner, faster, brighter - Apple proves you can make the best better
- 2 Sports Direct security guard allegedly banned Jewish schoolboys and told them: 'No Jews, no Jews'
- 3 Watch a man race the Circle line - and win
- 4 Pakistani passenger power forces two politicians off plane
- 5 Kanye West halts concert after two fans don't stand up - doesn't realise one is in wheelchair and the other disabled
Emma Thompson admits being frightened ahead of Sweeney Todd West End appearance
Robin Thicke admits he did not write 'Blurred Lines'
Star Trek 3 to begin shooting in next six months
Lego breaks out of the toy box and heads for the gallery
The Walking Dead season 5 air date, trailer and season 4 recap
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
Scottish independence referendum: A nation divided against itself
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Scottish independence: Yes campaign feels the heat as Alex Salmond's NHS claims come under furious attack
Portuguese academic says British are 'filthy, violent and drunk'