The Handsome Family – Live at Schuba’s Tavern

The Handsome Family
Live at Schuba’s Tavern

Although one seems to be constantly caught in the no-man’s land of vacillating between amusement and horror when listening to the intensely heart-rending and altogether human tales captured in the music of Brett and Rennie Sparks, never knowing exactly when or even if it’s permissible to laugh at their songs of murder and loss, a live concert would seemingly confirm just what kind of folks we’re dealing with here. And, thankfully, Live at Schuba’s Tavern helps answer that question, and it actually turns out that in performance they’re not nearly depressed as you would think. Expecting a performance by American Gothic ghouls with pancake makeup and black funeral garb would seem at least somewhat justified, so when it’s found that they actually happen to be engagingly witty performers, constantly cracking jokes that could easily be twisted into the inspiration for a new set of songs, it’s a little surprising. They assuredly aren’t the husband and wife next door, but they could easily be the eccentric cousins that you’d love to sneak off with to tell ghosts at family reunions. Oh yeah, and it doesn’t hurt that this live album resonates with a vitality even somewhat greater than their studio albums, as well.
Crackling with a live energy, both encompassed in Brett Spark’s snapping distorted lead guitar lines in the opening “Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear” and the chilling rejoinders on human nature in the disturbingly gorgeous “A Beautiful Thing,” lyric and melody are always perfectly married for optimum effect and are made all the more powerful in a live setting. As the Handsome Family have often been accused of drawing copious amounts of inspiration from the mystery and resignation of Appalachian folk music, aside from the presence of Rennie’s ever-present autoharp, they generally come closer to the smooth atmospheric sounds of the countrypolitan 1950’s. To be sure, Brett has an almost classic country croon, both nasal and deadpan, yet authoritative and restful. And still they find a horror generally keeping with that in the hallowed tradition of country pathos but all the more disturbing because of the emotionally neutral way in which it is delivered. The commanding “Tinfoil” presents these contrasts brilliantly, folding over layers of pseudo prophetic lines that read like passages from the Bible with an undeniable live polish. As always, nearly every statement has a horrifying punch line, always delivered with Brett’s unsettlingly soothing monotone.
In all honesty, listening to these songs makes one realize that just a little too much has been made of the more bizarre facets of the Handsome Family’s songwriting, as many of these tracks are excellently constructed, featuring wonderful melodies and richly adorned arrangements that stand completely independent of the brilliance of the imagery and storytelling. The achingly gorgeous “I Know That You Are There,” despite having some rather disconcerting lines, ranks among the greatest love songs to enter the country music canon in some time. No one can make waltz time sound scarier, either, proven by the dazzling narrative “The Sad Milkman” and the psych ward tribute in “My Ghost.” The songs are potent and performed in such a way as to draw the listener in with every progressively ghastly revelation.
Best of all, these songs are just a little more roughly hewn and spontaneous sounding than those on the studio albums, allowing you to feel that you really are sitting in the third row watching this theater unfold. Rennie seems to enjoy dispensing with a sense of self-deprecating humor that suggests that the Handsome Family really don’t take themselves all that seriously. The stories that unfold in their between song banter are nearly as entertaining as the songs, whether they be dialogues on crappy local music venues or kitty litter. In short, the picture comes into a little better focus with Live at Schuba’s Tavern, and no matter what you make of the songs, they are never anything short of profoundly entertaining.