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The Handsome Family - Last Days of Wonder

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Artist: The Handsome Family

Album: Last Days of Wonder

Label: Carrot Top

Review date: Jul. 16, 2006

"When automatic sinks in airports, no longer see your hands… your greatest journey has begun."

Polite country trimmings aside, The Handsome Family's Brett Sparks reveals himself to be a bit of a spiritual close-talker. Nearly oblivious to his own presence, Sparks (who sings the words of band mate Rennie Sparks) stands in near and warbles the truths we all know but perhaps would rather not hear. The listener is so often confronted with these moments of loss and downfall, it's difficult not to check oneself for a pulse from time to time.

The division of labor on Last Days Of Wonder works so efficiently that the album nearly comes across as the product of twin auteurs, maybe like a Coen Bros. joint. Recorded in Sparks' home studio, the album captures a clean intimacy that sets up a dialectic as profound as the concept of good and evil itself: one writes, the other sings (although Rennie provides backing vocals and sings the lead on one); they play modern American roots music, and record it on a computer; they sing sometimes joyous melodies about decay and loss. On "Flapping Your Broken Wings," Sparks sings from one channel and then the next, evoking a Slick Rick angel vs. devil chorus (without the cousin shooting). It's another transmission from the center of the shame spiral; two busted drunks on the golf course who couldn’t be prouder when the cops show up.

The darkest sounds sometimes arrive in the brightest moments, as on the hobo love paean "These Golden Jewels," which follows a love-struck nihilist on a bender, set to a broken-axle groove that recalls oRSo's early work with producer Brian Deck (down to the post-apocalyptic Roma croon). Brett Sparks' lap steel playing alone is a triumph of subtlety and understatement throughout, never overstaying its welcome but consistently drawing happy tears from the corners of each song's eyes. The layered caramel of his voice stays thick from track to track, but finally, it's Rennie's poetry that gives Last Days Of Wonder its legs. With a keen eye for who's hiding in the shade, Sparks spins tales of losers looking back on their best loser days, like Bukowski set to heartbreak guitars on "Bowling Alley Bar": "Skinny girls in tight red jeans kicking cigarette machines. / That old woman all alone dirty dancing by the phones. / Driving circles at 3 a.m., throwing rocks at mailboxes, you / Could never see the stars with those plastic sunglasses on."

By Andy Freivogel

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