The Handsome Family count Bruce Springsteen among their fans and have had one of their tracks, ‘Far From Any Road’, used as the title theme for crime drama True Detective.
The husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks nonetheless remain something of a cult whose oddness may preclude them from reaching a wider audience. This, after all, is an outfit whose American Gothic sees them singing about cephalopods in cowboy hats (the carnival-esque ‘Octopus’) and hanging out with the demons (the gently woozy ‘No One Fell Asleep Alone’).
It’s a surreal quality that, along with their between song bickering, offers light relief to their often bleak Americana.
At their most direct they recall Richmond Fontaine’s small town dramas on ‘So Much Wine’ and the twanging country blues of ‘The Loneliness Of Magnets’, their core sound of guitar and ukulele swelled by a two-piece band.
The darker they get, however, the more compelling they become. ‘Up Falling Rock Hill’ is an eerie murder ballad in the tradition of Johnny Cash, whose bruised and gravelly voice is in direct lineage with Brett’s. Even better is ‘My Sister’s Tiny Hands’ uses weeping pedal steel, cradled autoharp and chirruping percussion to create biblical fear.
The constant throughout these tracks is a love of poetic and often mundane facts. Set closer ‘The Giant Of Illinois’ notes that the world’s tallest man “died from a blister on his toe” while on the darkly melancholy ‘Back In My Day’ Brett reminisces about a time when “you could drink from the river.”
These minor details, when combined with the plaintiveness in their harmonised vocals, make the songs come alive and turn traditional folk narratives into tales that claw their way into the dark heart of Middle America.