april 2009

Finding Sermons In Stone

By David McGee

Brett and Rennie Sparks in the wild, in search of a love inseparable from the soil and the stars.
Photo: Mark Owen (MEOPhoto@aol.com)

The Handsome Family
Carrot Top Records

Visiting the Handsome Family's haunting Honey Moon album is a bit like entering a room populated by a chattering class comprised of Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Russ Columbo, Groucho Marx and that guy on the saw who adds so much mystery to the Flatlanders' first album. It feels dark and morbid in there, but to such a degree it becomes almost comical, like a really good carnival fun house ride when you're trundling along in the wobbly car in pitch black surroundings only to be suddenly confronted by the onrushing specter of a behemoth of a bus coming right at you, with blinding lights and blaring horn frighteningly present. Then, right before you're crushed, your car turns sharply and you're out of danger. You never were in any danger, of course, but it was still a cheap thrill, and kind of bracing in its own way. On Honey Moon, Brett (music) and Rennie Sparks (lyrics) explore the deep purple abyss abiding between the fun house car and the onrushing bus. The difference is, it's not clear whether they make the sharp, life saving turn, or go out the window, to use the euphemistic phrase for suicide coined by the philosopher in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. Maybe Woody's in the room too, because love and death are separated by a razor's edge in these songs.. In the end, you might not want to belong to a club that would have Rennie and Brett as members (apologies to Groucho for the paraphrase), but a visit to their realm is always than interesting, a more exalted cheap thrill than a carnival ride and certainly bracing, even uplifting when you reflect on where in the soul the trip has taken you.

First, the music is exceedingly lovely: a combination of acoustic stringed instruments and trebly, twanging guitars and gentle percussion, laconic country and pop rhythms, and aching, sepia-tinted melodies from a time and place far away from here. How appropriate then that the lyrics should also seem both out of another era and deeply embedded in the current zeitgeist of fear and dread over the prospect of society's imminent collapse. (Maybe the other era is the Great Depression?) That is, Rennie seems to long for a simpler time, but her art knows the folly of this pursuit, and so is conflicted even as it seeks a place of solace and beauty while continuing to summon the transcendent.

Say this about Rennie's songs: they reveal an artist acutely aware of the physical world and the human interaction with it, and therein lies the rub. In Angels of Nature, the Christian mystic Flower A. Newhouse wrote, "When one experiences Nature through the eyes of inner perception, one realizes that there is nothing commonplace in this kingdom. ...Such an approach to Nature requires reverence." What better summation of Honey Moon, so deeply enmeshed in nature and metaphysical yearnings to be one with it? Reverence is in order.

"We are like the crickets in the springs/Crawling out from under snow/Twine your vines around me, drop your branches in my path/Linger, let me linger" goes Brett's broadly melodramatic reading in the album opener, "Linger, Let Me Linger," an eerie, captivating bit of early 20th Century pop with a twanging guitar line punctuating its longings. In the lovely, lilting, pedal steel-drenched strains of "Little Sparrows," Brett, with Rennie whispering a shadow vocal, literally longs to join with the Hymenoptera: "Oh, you little ants winding through the tangled weeds/Where you're going I don't care/Take me with you when you go." In the gentle country solemnity of "June Bugs," Brett's love for another is inseparable from and reflected by the earth below and the sky above: "Hawk moths are sipping the night-blooming rose/A honey as sweet as the moon's sugar glow/The leaves of the apple tree whispering low/The stars are on fire, the nightingales moan/Because the green buds are swelling/And June Bugs are crawling the yard."

In one of Honey Moon's few concessions to the 21st Century, by way of a subdued, ever humming and burbling synth under Brett's seriocomic vocal, "Love Is Like" takes this obsession to a near-farcical extreme, comparing his winged Cupid to "a white moth sipping tears from sleeping birds," "a black fly buzzing in the sun," "an asteroid in flames tumbling to the Earth," even "a hole torn right through the roof/When that old sugar pine"—and how deliciously he warbles "that ol-l-l-d sugar pine" as if channeling the popular 1930s pop crooner Russ Columbo—"came crashing down that night/And above the broken beams and the shattered ceiling tiles/You can see starlight for the very first time." No wonder one critic said he immediately hugged his wife after hearing this song. It does have a certain life-affirming charm about it, this scenario of narrow escape in which lovers seemingly oblivious to the mayhem around them and their proximity to death simply snuggle up and marvel at the celestial wonders revealed through their suddenly collapsed ceiling. And how appropriate that Russ Columbo should be, figuratively speaking, in the room—Russ Columbo, whose theme song was "You Call It Madness, But I Call It Love," and who wrote "Prisoner of Love" (yes, the same song that was a Top 20 hit for James Brown, who found a lot of, shall we say, wiggle room in Columbo's rendition). Perhaps in this context it's instructive to note the circumstances of Columbo's bizarre death, as recounted by Frank Hoffman in Survey of American Popular Music (http://www.shsu.edu/): "On September 2, 1934, just hours before his regular Sunday evening radio program, Columbo stopped by to see his life-long friend, Lansing V. Brown, Jr., who lived with his parents at 584 Lillian Way in Beverly Hills. He was going to have some publicity shots taken by Brown, who was highly respected as still camera man and much in demand as a portrait photographer. After the photos has been taken, they talked about a common interest, antique pistol collecting. Brown then produced a pair of duelling pistols that dated from the Civil War, part of his own collection of curios. He placed the head of a match under the rusty hammer of one of the pistols with a flourish, then pulled the trigger to ignite the match in order to light a cigarette. The pistol, which evidently hadn't been used for over sixty-five years, still housed a charge of powder and an old bullet. The chick of the hammer caused the charge to explode and the corroded bullet struck the top of a table located between the two friends, ricocheted, striking Columbo in the left eye, then entering his brain."

Alas, poor Russ. The circumstances of Columbo's demise are horribly accurate, in contrast to the apocryphal account of the eccentric, visionary French composer and virtuoso pianist Charles Alkan (whose music is widely considered so technically demanding as to be near-impossible to play; among the enduring compositions he bequeathed to the canon upon his departure from this mortal coil is Marcia funèbre, sulla morte d'un Pappagallo, or "Funeral march on the death of a parrot"; without him, though, Scriabin might never have found his "mystic chord"). For years a story circulated that the reclusive Alkan—forever seething over being persistently compared unfavorably to the more accessible and glamorous Liszt, much as Russ Columbo was bedeviled by being constantly portrayed as a poor man's version of his bitter rival, Bing Crosby—had perished in the aftermath of a bookcase falling on him while he was reaching for a copy of the Talmud; in truth, the unfortunate Alkan was spirited to the sweet hereafter upon being struck and trapped by a falling umbrella stand. Columbo and Alkan share a decidedly Handsome Family-style demise, when that figurative "ol-l-l-d sugar pine" came crashing down them with thudding finality. But I digress.

The mesmerizing waltz that is "Darling, My Darling," a beautiful love song, completes the Kafkaesque metamorphoses overtly advanced from the git-go: over a low organ, a rippling guitar and quiet, brush drums, Brett croons a soft, "Darling, my darling, look at my waving antennae/My barbed jaw and hard red pincers, the stripes running down my spine"; in the final verse he anticipates a final orgiastic demise, not uncommon among Praying Mantises and Black Widow spiders, to wit: "I'll leap on your spine and love you till you gnaw me down to my wings." Well, as Shakespeare, opined in As You Like It, "Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love." Brett and Rennie would seem to have issues with the immortal Bard on this point.

Amidst all this, oh, earthy discourse, it's refreshing to indulge in the vo-de-oh-doh delight of "The Loneliness of Magnets," perhaps an artifact of an age when singers warbled through megaphones. Languid and jazzy, it shuffles along on thick, bright electric guitar notings, a cooing background chorus and brush drums, while Brett's vocal quivers and quakes with desperation as he declares his heart to be "a beating compass pointing to the pole," and in the chorus bellows theatrically, "I feel the loneliness of magnets and the tides across the sea/I am the dark valley calling to the trembling mountain peak."

You can listen to albums all your life and not find one as vivid and true to its own magnetic pole than Honey Moon. Its action plays out on a bizarre, beautiful and sometimes sinister landscape every bit as much a character as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and is related by a narrator imbued with what Poe, in "The Tell-Tale Heart," called "an over-acuteness of the senses." Yet the great triumph of Honey Moon's tell-tale heart is how it beats not to terrorize, as Poe's fictional one did, but for something better, and more pure, in its wanderings through creation, in search of a love inseparable from the soil and the stars.

Or as that fellow Shakespeare observed: "And this our life, exempt from public haunt, find tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stone, and good in everything."

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024