Though The Handsome Family has been critically well received since it began performing and recording in 1994, the husband-and-wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks has yet to receive any major-label interest or funding. The couple recorded their latest disc, In the Air, in their Chicago living room, for tiny Carrot Top Records. And since the duo's lyrical content concerns dead bodies and human sacrifice and its music is made up of brooding melodies and is nearly bereft of any percussive elements, chances are the average commercial radio listener or MTV watcher would not be interested or amused. Like many of its contemporaries on the fringe, The Handsome Family seems poised to remain independent forever.
But one of the many good things about indies-for-life like The Handsome Family is their accessibility. If the band is not on tour now, you know it will be sometime soon. Unlike a big-time performer, a small-scale act, independent of cushy expense accounts, does not make its living through record sales. It makes its gravy through touring. Which means an act like The Handsome Family can spend, in some cases, upward of 200 days a year playing gig after gig after gig and untold days traveling. An indie-rock fan can only hope at least a small portion of that interstate runs through his hometown sooner or later.
This week Houston gets lucky. In addition to The Handsome Family, Two Dollar Guitar and the Dillinger Escape Plan are scheduled to perform. They all play on different nights and in two different venues, and each is playing to Houston ears for the first time. Three solid, relatively current bands in town the same week also marks that rare occasion when the yokel fan is even more torn than usual: Should he see this band at this club on this day? Or this band at this club on this day? Or maybe this band at this club on this day?
Scott Walcott, booking agent of Rudyard's, which will host both The Handsome Family and Two Dollar Guitar, says he welcomed the chance to host Two Dollar Guitar, a personal favorite. "I book more avant-garde stuff," says Walcott. "I've always liked nonmainstream bands. I was a punk kid, you know."
On the other hand, Walcott, who has held his post at Rudz the past three years, says he had never heard of The Handsome Family.
Not many have.
Playing on the name given to serial killer Charles Manson and his serial-killing clan, The Handsome Family obviously enjoys a little ironic posing. This is not to say The Handsome Family is an ugly band. Supported by random contributors, the Sparkses on In the Air re-create those days of yore when two chords, a nice vocal line and lyrics about dying siblings, stabbed lovers or drowning friends were all that was needed to gain an audience. Yet the ballad, as a staple of the country-folk form, has hardly ever been delivered more technically perfect than it is on this disc. The Sparkses seem as if they were both born to be bummed.
"The darkness and the cold forces us to work," says Rennie with a laugh, referring to Chicago's bleak winter climate. For this interview, she and Brett shared a phone line. "And we drown our sorrows in drink once in a while."
Rennie, who holds an MFA in creative writing, pens lyrics from melodies Brett conjures up. She writes 'em, he sings 'em. Brett's droning monotone, conveying just the right amount of objective detachment, is perfect for delivering a meaningful ballad. He never really sings as much as he, as a good balladeer should, narrates. His voice becomes melodic only when he vocalizes words that rhyme. "Up Falling Rock Hill," Brett intones on the song of the same name, "where the leaves swoop like bats I shot my brother William five times in the back."
Yes, this is kind of funny, but only because we know neither Brett nor his wife ever shot and killed anybody. Inauthenticity is the foundation of creativity, after all. The Handsome Family knows this.
And though deliverance or some sense of finality typically comes to the characters of old-time ballads, it rarely ever happens to the people in The Handsome Family's tunes. A Cain and Abel tale, "Up Falling Rock Hill" ends not with the appearance of a vengeful god, but with nothing. The song's message seems to say: Sometimes, against the will of the cosmos, there is crime without punishment.
Taking preconceived notions and turning them on their heads, as The Handsome Family does in this song and on others, is, if anything, a great way of getting the listener's attention.
On stage, with plastic forest animals as props, The Handsome Family performs at a much higher volume than its recorded work would indicate. A place like Rudz, with its warm, wooden and intimate interior, appears to be a perfect fit. "We fatten up the sound, which enables us to play at a certain level that precludes [the audience's] talking," says Brett. "You have to get to a certain place before it drills into their heads..."
Rennie interrupts: "Please. Don't refer to drilling anybody in our audience in the head."
"Just say," says Rennie, affecting her mock-sweet voice, " 'We like to stroke our audience with a soft cloth.' "
Brett and Rennie met in New York in 1987 and soon got married. They began playing together, however, only about five years ago, once they relocated to Illinois. Music, says Rennie, "filled the void left by lack of breast-feeding in my life."
The band was originally a trio. The third member left because, according to Brett, "he thought we were too negative, too depressing."
The current leg of this tour will end in March, but only for a minute. England and Ireland are summer tour stops, followed by the East Coast for three weeks. "And we're doing it all in a horse and buggy," says Brett. "We're sticking to our Amish theme."
Like The Handsome Family, Two Dollar Guitar also stretches a couple chords and a melody or two a long, long way. Led by world-weary traveler Tim Folijahn, Two Dollar Guitar presents its subtle sound with heavy-handed restraint. Guitar effects only tease. Rhythms merely provide backdrops for songs. And Folijahn's voice never rises above a conversational tone.
Yet Two Dollar Guitar, which has released five recordings since its first year, 1992, all on the Smells Like Records label, always manages to strike a wonderfully melancholy tone. Though hardly as somber as Blinker The Star or early R.E.M., Two Dollar Guitar -- whose ever-shifting lineup now comprises Steve Shelley, Dave Motamed and Luc Suer -- sometimes seems like it is not conscious of its musings. And if you can see past all the band's deliberateness -- the minor chord progressions, the moody melodies, the lo-fi production, the obvious desire to bum listeners out -- you might enjoy Two Dollar Guitar's creative posturing.
"We try to create atmosphere," says Folijahn. "People talk about how dark the music is, and I admit I have a penchant for that stuff, but I don't think it's any more extreme than lighthearted pop songs....Hearing a sad song doesn't necessarily depress me. It doesn't work that way."
For the first time, Folijahn says, Two Dollar Guitar is touring for a reason. The first leg of its current itinerary, which began last week in Washington, D.C., and ends in Pittsburgh early next month, coincides with the recent release of its latest record, Weak Beats and Lame Ass Rhymes. "It makes sense," says Folijahn, "for people to think there's a record they can buy. They hear a song they like, they wanna buy the record. It's a tried-and-true method."
At the other end of the spectrum from Two Dollar Guitar and The Handsome Family is the Dillinger Escape Plan. Once in a while a band or a particular type of sound comes along that is like a physical affront to your body. In the '60s it was Coltrane and his twisted horn. In the '70s it was the Sex Pistols and its charged messages. In the '80s it was N.W.A. and its street realism, and Megadeth and its louder-than-loud, double-bass-in-your-face sound. And in the '90s it is England's jungle DJs and their big-ass beats, and the Dillinger Escape Plan and its faster-and-harder-than-Megadeth speed metal.
Not only is the Dillinger Escape Plan one of the most technically accomplished turbo-speed acts around, it is also probably one of the youngest. Its oldest member is 23.
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Nearly sixteenth-note double-bass beats, nearly sixteenth-note staccato picking and consistently screamed-out vocals make up most of the Dillinger Escape Plan's sound, especially noticeable on its debut on Relapse Records, Calculating Infinity. The way the band members -- Brian Benoit, Adam Doll, Dimitri Minakakis, Chris Pennie, Benjamin Weinmen and Jeff Wood -- shift tempos and timbres as quickly as one would turn a page is worth seeing, if only for its jaw-dropping spectacle.
Might not be long till every week Houston is packed with go-out-of-your-way-to-see performances. For now, this is as decent a hat trick as the town will have.
Two Dollar Guitar performs Friday, February 18, and The Handsome Family performs Saturday, February 19, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh. For more information, call (713)521-0521. The Dillinger Escape Plan performs Wednesday, February 23, at Mary Jane's, 4216 Washington. For more information, call (713)869-5263.
E-mail Anthony Mariani at anthony.mariani@ houstonpress.com.