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Photograph by Mark Owen
A Mazement: Married songwriting duo Rennie and Brett Sparks play the Crepe Place Friday night.

That's The Power of Love

On its new release, the Handsome Family ventures into forbidden territory: romance

By Paul M. Davis

MANY ARTISTS have explored the dark recesses of the American id, but few have wrung such effortless beauty from it as the Handsome Family. Since 1995, the married duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks has found gold in the strange, the mundane and the macabre. Specializing in folk, bluegrass and country delivered at a stately pace, the band has become known for songs examining the existential cruelty of the natural world and the sorrows of an ill-spent life, and bone-chilling murder ballads. But on the occasion of their 20th wedding anniversary, the two have turned toward territory they've rarely explored: the redemptive power of love.

Not that the Handsome Family has resorted to churning out pablum. These are messy, complicated evocations of love's mysteries, as Rennie Sparks is quick to emphasize. "To me, love songs are just another way of talking about the great mystery of life," she says. "Sometimes to talk about life you need to talk about death, but the beauty of a love song is that we are all immortal while we listen to the best of them." It wasn't easy, either. "It's always hard to write a song. None of them have ever come easy, so this record was just as hard as the rest."

To complement the band's slightly sunnier disposition on this latest release, Honey Moon, the arrangements are airier, without the sense of oppressive dread that has often marked the band's sound. Where instrumentation in the past was often spare and understated, on Honey Moon the sound opens up to expansive, big-screen vistas that recall the earlier work of Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline. For a band that has hewed very closely to the bare-bone elements of American folk--acoustic guitar, steel guitar, harmonica and a spare rhythm section--Honey Moon's full-bodied embrace of '50s pop comes as something of a revelation.

This isn't a new influence for the band, however. The music of the '50s, and '40s, has long inspired the Handsome Family. "We love the vocal groups like the Platters and the Mills Brothers," Sparks notes. "We especially love the Ink Spots and the heartbreaking beauty of Roy Orbison. I saw Roy Orbison sing in a park in Michigan in the late 1980s and the beauty of his voice that night still echoes through me."

The entwined nature of the couple's lyrical and musical obsessions is reflected in their songwriting process. During 20 years of marriage, nearly 15 of those as a band, Brett and Rennie Sparks have perfected a songwriting arrangement that continues to work for them. "I write the words first and then I give them to Brett to find us a melody and chords, and then we both work on the arrangements," Rennie explains. "The songs end up always feeling partly mine and partly his. It keeps us bound together."

Those lyrics, at turns disturbing and redemptive, are lashed to the rural sounds of midcentury American music, an association that has inspired many comparisons to Southern Gothic fiction. Sparks rebuffs such characterizations, insisting that despite their pastoral sound, the duo have urban roots. "I always take offense when people call my writing 'Southern Gothic'," she says. "I'm not from the South and I'm not even a Christian. I'm a Jewish girl who grew up by the seashore on Long Island. The South doesn't have a monopoly on dark mystery."

In spite of a shift away from the band's characteristic existential dread, the Handsome Family's sensibility remains pitch-sdark. "I am still the kind of person who will always spot the enormous spider on the wall at the back of the room while everyone else is busily helping themselves to the buffet," Rennie says. "Sometimes the spider scares me. Sometimes I am awed by its strange beauty."

THE HANDSOME FAMILY plays Friday, July 24, at 9pm at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Dr., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10 advance/$12 at the door. For more information, call 831.429.6994.

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