“I’m American. We have very few words in our vocabulary, so we tend to say fuck a lot. This is a song about Albuquerque. It’s about someone who got shot in the gut over a box of donuts and a hundred dollar bill.” So says Rennie Sparks, the cut-throat crystal wit of The Handsome Family, dressed in a sweet, lacy black tea dress, fingers poised delicately over her tenor ukulele.
Over twenty years since their debut release, she’s still exactly the kind of girl you’d take home to meet your grandmother. If your grandmother is the kind of girl who’d lived enough of a life to see its bloody, jaded core, still relishes the beauty in a dewdrop-tinged morning, and says fuck a lot.
The song is ‘Gold’, a classic Handsome Family hummable, nod-along dark Americana ditty, poetically mixing metaphors about sparkle, dust and death, Brett Sparks’ deep, workaday tenor picking out words like oral cinematography.
Rennie extemporises thoughts and stories between songs with the fiery, bewildered wisdom of Dave Allen, the warmth and panache of Val Doonican (if you ever caught him live, away from the Vaseline lenses of the 70s), and New York steel and Southern grit (she’s from the former and lives in New Mexico). She’s like a gothic Ross Noble, discombobulated by a dumpster with the sign ‘No Flytipping’ on it – “is that like cow tipping? Do you have to tip the flies?”
‘The Loneliness of Magnets’ from 2009’s ‘Honey Moon’ is yelled over a soft-shoed shuffling four-four beat reminiscent of The Monkees. “I am the dark valley calling to the trembling mountain peak,” sings Brett. And it should sound dark and sexual, but it sounds sweetness and light. You have to double take. Always, double take.
Rennie continues with her stories throughout the night. “This is a song about snakes. It’s designed to attract snakes. So I hope that’s not a problem for anybody. When you get home tonight, you’ll find snakes clinging to you…. This is a song about the New Mexico State Fair. It’s a pretty shitty State Fair. It has a giant plastic shark hanging from the ceiling in a room. You can make your own tacos. I saw the largest ear of corn… This is a song about our backyard. Our front yard is filled with whisky bottles… This is a song about octopuses, and they will hypnotise all of us, and all your wallets will be gone…” On and on she goes, leftfield images tossed around lightly as gothic word salad, incredibly funny, deeply twisted, endearing, and dark. Always dark. She is the lyricist: the dark, strongly beating heart of the band, hidden beneath the flesh and bone of Brett’s voice and guitar.
“This is a song about a short-lived show about cat detectives. Until they turned it into another damn cop show with no damn cats in it…” Brett finally interjects: “It’s the song that ruined my life. Thanks for making that song a Spotify success.” It gets the biggest cheer of the night. It’s the theme from ‘True Detective’, the song that T-Bone Burnett sought out and which saw them finally catapulted into Well-Known territory.
They relish the size of the venue. “If there was a venue this size in Albuquerque they’d just fill it with broken tacos,” says Rennie drolly. It’s standing room only tonight (except for a lift-accessible, packed balcony area for those less able to stand – good call, Quarterhouse), and they perpetually dare people to creep beyond the crash barriers at the front of the stage, and under the staging blocks, to find out exactly what is underneath. ‘Nothing!’ Says Rennie lightly, and you know that that word will never be quite what it seems from those lips. Nothing ever is. Unsettling? Definitely. Beguiling? Certainly. Broken as tacos? Always. And just as delicious.