On Tuesday, I had two completely unrelated incidents involving spiders. In each case, the itinerant arachnid was harmlessly removed from a place of potential danger to a safer location where he could get on with the important task of catching flies without fear of being stepped on or drowned. I thought no more of these occurrences at the time but would later find out that they held some kind of unexpected significance as part of an unlikely connection.
Later that evening, I drove to Sheffield to watch The Handsome Family who were playing in the intimate confines of The Greystones pub. The Handsome Family are husband and wife duo Brett & Rennie Sparks from Albuquerque who have released a string of beautifully odd records over the past two decades. I have a huge soft spot for their work despite them being rather lazily shoehorned into the Alt. Country bracket by people who feel the need for such labels. I can’t say I’m a fan of the whole banjos & Stetsons thing but then I never really go for bands who operate within the rigorous confines of any genre without attempting to subvert its inherent clichés.
There were two things that struck me when I first heard their music some years ago; Brett’s voice, rich and sonorous like a piece of deeply polished furniture of undefinable age housed inside a huge bell. Then there were Rennie’s lyrics which were more akin to short stories bristling with the imagery of death, suicide, nature and other abstractions which describe the minutiae of the human condition. They most certainly fall into my ‘Genre Cliché Subverters’ category.
They play a spellbinding set culled from an impeccable back catalogue in front of an audience who are politely seated in rows. I don’t like sitting down when watching bands and so I stand at the back of the room. Brett is in an unpredictable mood, over-enunciating words through his greying beard and playing his guitar like it’s some kind of strange object which he has just unearthed. There is an indefinable psychedelic quality to their delivery tonight. Between songs, Rennie speaks of the mundane and the fantastic, usually in the same sentence. I’m happy that they play my two favourite songs; Weightless Again and The Bottomless Hole but also a handful of tracks from their new LP Wilderness. Owls describes the interior of an old house and its titular inhabitants who keep stealing medication belonging to the narrator. They finish with the magnificent Glow Worm which tells the story of a journey to the centre of the earth on a huge ship and the wonders which are encountered along the way.
If you haven’t yet discovered this band then you really should give them a try, even if like me you have an aversion to the aforementioned banjo/Stetson combination. They are a resolutely anomalous duo who write wonderfully mysterious songs filled with the kind of prose that puts most contemporary authors to shame. They have a new LP out at the moment called Wilderness which is a highly recommended introduction to their world and can be obtained physically via Carrot Top records (here). A digital download version is also available through iTunes and various other online outlets. In addition to this release, a book of essays and art by Rennie has been produced which brings me neatly back to the spiders…
I spoke to Rennie briefly before the show at their tiny merchandise table and bought a copy of the book which she duly signed as we chatted. It was dark, there were others waiting behind me and so I put the volume directly into my bag as I headed out to the bar. When I arrived home later that evening, I opened the book to see what she had written and the connection was completed. Here’s the inscription;