Friday, June 23, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: HANDSOME SOUNDS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 23, 2006


The thing I like best about The Handsome Family is how they create these deceptively sweet country melodies that invite you to drift along — but somewhere along the line, the lyrics take unexpected twists and lead you into strange realms.

A vibrant but alien spirit world will be uncovered, gurgling just below mundane surfaces. Ancient myths are re-enacted by helpless mortals. Or sometimes the song turns into a tale in which humans behave bizarrely, sometimes atrociously.

This holds true with the Albuquerque couple’s latest album, Last Days of Wonder. Not only is Rennie Sparks’ songwriting as mysterious and funny as ever, but this album also might just be the group’s strongest musically. Brett Sparks’ baritone, as always, is the perfect narrative vehicle for his wife’s lyrics. (I once wrote that he sings like you’d imagine Abe Lincoln would.) But the instrumentation makes for one sonically pleasing experience. Most of it is done by Brett, but some is supplied by members of Albuquerque’s Rivet Gang, which includes Brett’s brother Darrell Sparks.

The record starts off with a slow, cowboy-sounding tune called “Your Great Journey.” This is basically a poetic rewrite of Louis Jordan’s “Jack, You Dead.”

“When automatic sinks in airports/no longer see your hands/and elevator doors close on you/when buses drive right past./When the only voice that answers/is the whir of a ceiling fan/your great journey has begun.”

There’s “Tesla’s Hotel Room,” a biographical ode to the inventor and engineer who discovered alternating current and who died impoverished in 1943. The Wikipedia entry on Nikola Tesla says, “In his later years, Tesla was regarded as a mad scientist and became noted for making bizarre claims about possible scientific developments. ... Many of his achievements have been used, with some controversy, to support various pseudosciences, UFO theories, and New Age occultism.”

But The Handsome Family is kinder, calling Tesla’s final days “the last days of wonder/when spirits still flew round bubbling test tubes in half-darkened rooms.” They show Tesla eating only saltines, nursing sick pigeons, and “dreaming of God as an X-ray machine.”

There’s “Flapping Your Broken Wings,” a song that, as Brett told me in an interview last year, is about “golf course vandalism.” The first line is a classic: “I can still see you there/in your grass-stained underwear/Dancing crooked circles across the golf course green.” It’s a happy tune about a drunken couple trespassing on a golf course at 3 a.m. just for a crazy frolic. By the last verse, consequences portend: “Like jewels on your green dress, my lady of the golf course/running in your underwear to greet the cops who’d driven up.” (I don’t think this song is autobiographical, but the Sparkses do live near a nine-hole golf course.)

Probably the prettiest song here is “Beautiful William,” where Brett’s guitar is accompanied by ghostly synths. It’s about a man who mysteriously disappears: “Was he given a package by a man on a train?/We found his car by the roadside later that day.” But even more mysterious is the reaction of William’s friends. “Rose smashed his windows till the glass/was all gone. Polly broke the back door/and she screamed down the hall./But no answer sounded but the wind flying/through as we tore up the green lawn/and torched all the rooms.”

“Hunter Green,” one of the rare songs on which Rennie sings lead, alludes to Celtic mythology and William Butler Yeats. A hunter kills a deer that turns into “my true love ... in a dress of darkest green” and then reverts back into a deer.

My favorite here is “After We Shot the Grizzly,” a breezy little tune with dark lyrics about castaways. But this ain’t Gilligan’s Island. “We built a raft from skin and bones./Only five could safely float. The others stood/upon the shore. They screamed and threw sharp stones ...”

Whether they’re singing of legendary seas, sad little forgotten graveyards, bowling alleys, golf courses, airports, or drive-in restaurants, The Handsome Family leads their listeners to magic. Are these not still the days of wonder?

CD-release party: The Handsome Family performs on Saturday, June 24, at the Launchpad, 618 Central Ave. S.W., Albuquerque, with Fast Heart Mart and The Rivet Gang. Doors open at 8 p.m. It’s only $7! For more information, call 505-764-8887.

Also recommended:

The Time Is Now
by The Rivet Gang. The latest album by this Albuquerque band is a fine showcase for its off-kilter, laid-back, acoustic brand of country. Featuring the songwriting talents of Darrell Sparks and Eric Johnson — and the cool picking of Dave Gutierrez — this record is perfect for your car CD player on a long drive into the desert.

There’s even a song called “Sunday Drive” that starts out: “My car is my church ... Mary Magdalene is a hula dancer/dancing to my favorite hymn, the sound of the wheels going round and round ...”

My favorite tune here is “Scar on Her Cheek,” an accordion (by Brett Sparks) and mandolin waltz with the refrain, “The scar on her cheek are the secrets we keep/Some things too real are hard to reveal/The scar on her cheek are the secrets we keep/I know where she walks her dog.”
There’s one cover song here — the bluegrassy “Spider and I,” a Brian Eno song that fits right in with the Gang’s originals.

Belated congratulations: to the Jimmy Stadler Band. Jimmy and the boys (drummer Craig Neil and bassist Dave Toland) last month won the New Mexico Music Award for CD of the Year for last year’s release, Sagebrush Alley. That album also featured New Mexico Music Award winners “Let’s Go See Daddy” (Best Song) and “Bad Habit” (Best Novelty/Humorous Song).

Bonus!

In honor of The Handsome Family, here's the story I did for New Mexico Magazine on alternative country in this state, published earlier this year, featuring them Handsomes, Terry Allen and Joe West.

A version of this was published in New Mexico Magazine
March, 2006


For a couple of weeks in the mid 1990s “alternative country,” often abbreviated to the more computer-friendly “alt. country,” was supposed to be the next big thing in the music world.

To the relief of many of its fans and leading lights -- definitely a crowd that doesn‘t place much value on trendiness -- it didn’t happen. Whatever “the next big thing” turned out to be, it didn’t have much of a twang.

But even though alt. country didn’t become the juggernaut that some predicted, there are plenty of country music fans who believe that the slick, sanitized mainstream music played on commercial country stations today isn’t traditional enough, isn’t rough enough, isn’t dark enough, isn’t weird enough.

Thus, there’s still a market for “alternative country.” And it’s a field in which New Mexico has made its mark.

The state has attracted some musicians who had already made their mark before moving to New Mexico. These include Terry Allen, a major don in what’s known as “The Lubbock Mafia,” who has lived in Santa Fe since the late ‘80s and The Handsome Family, who moved from Chicago to Albuquerque in 2001.

And the state can claim at least one homegrown musician -- singer/songwriter/latter-day rhinestone cowboy Joe West of Santa Fe -- whose fandom is growing beyond New Mexico’s borders.

There’s been much ink devoted to pondering what exactly alt. country is. Until last year, No Depression magazine, a national publication devoted to the sound, described itself as the “alternative country (whatever that is) bi-monthly.”

I take the big-tent approach to defining alt. country, or, as the music is sometimes referred to, “Americana.”

Let’s include rock bands with a country or rootsy sound, aging outlaws and cosmic cowboys, edgy singer songwriters with drawls in their voices and country in their souls, renegade rockabillies, retro-honky tonkers and insurgent bluegrassers who are too country for country radio, and basically any singer or picker who knows the secret connections between Hank and Hendrix.

From at least the time of the “Outlaw Era” of the early to mid ‘70s, there has been a traditional underground country/folk “trade route” between Austin, Texas and New Mexico. Austin’s cosmic cowboys -- icons like Willie Nelson or Jerry Jeff Walker as well as lesser-known acts.


And some even moved here. The ski town of Red River has been home to Ray Wylie Hubbard and Bill & Bonnie Hearne -- a blind Texas honky-tonk couple who lived in Red River before settling in Santa Fe, where they have lived for more than 20 years.


Another Texan to rise from the Outlaw Era was Michael Martin Murphey, who lived near Taos for most the ‘80s and ‘90s.

And while he didn’t perform here much, northern New Mexico was a place of retreat and relaxation for Doug Sahm, who died in Taos in 1999.

But the Austin/New Mexico route is a two-way street. The state’s ever-struggling music scene -- in long-defunct bars like The Golden Inn, The Thunderbird in Placitas, The Bourbon & Blues and The Turf Club in Santa Fe -- has produced a handful of artists who went on to bigger things in Austin.

Jamie Brown, who attended high school in Santa Fe, played here in the ‘70s with a band called The Last Mile Ramblers before becoming famous as “Junior Brown,” melding elements of Ernest Tubb and Jimi Hendrix in Austin’s Continental Club.

Eliza Gilkyson, who has become a respected singer/songwriter, was another fixture in the Santa Fe music scene from the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s, where she was known as Lisa Gilkyson. The daughter of song writer Terry Gilkyson (“The Bear Necessities,” “Memories Are Made of This”), she has been an Austin resident for several years. Her brother Tony Gilkyson moved west to Los Angeles, where he was a guitarist for the 1980s roots-rock band Lone Justice, as well as L.A. punk giants X.

In the mid 1990s a female-dominated band called Hazeldine rose from the streets of Albuquerque -- in fact they were named for a street in Albuquerque -- to become an important influence in the national alt. country scene.

Today the state is home to many impressive musicians who could be considered alt. country. Nels Andrews plays his dark brooding tunes with his band The El Paso Eyepatch in Albuquerque, while Chipper Thompson creates his bluegrass-drenched “folk ’n’ roll in Taos. Septuagenarian Kell Robertson comes out of his Santa Fe County chicken coop ever so often to sing his beatnik/cowboy tunes. In Silver City Bayou Seco plays a sweet blend of Cajun, New Mexican and country music.

Here’s a look at some major alt. country heroes currently living in New Mexico.

XXX

Terry Allen is not your typical musician -- alt. country or otherwise. He’s more like a mad scientist who uses music, painting, sculpture, film, video, and just about all aspects of theater in his art. He’ll get an idea and sometimes it will involve words, paintings, and often, music.


Of his various disciplines he said “They feed each other so much,” he said, “It depends on what I’m curious about and what the ideas are at the time I’m working. I kind of let the work dictate where it goes, whatever form it takes.”

Still, he’s one of the most respected songwriters in the country music underground. Allen’s 1979 album Lubbock on Everything, a roadhouse rocker (the first to feature his Panhandle Mystery Band) with hilarious, sardonic and often poignant stories of West Texas characters -- generally is considered one of the seminal country-rock albums of all time. His songs have been covered by Doug Sahm, Bobby Bare, Little Feat, Robert Earl Keene, Cracker and others.

Allen is from Lubbock, Texas and his name is synonymous with the music of Lubbock -- a scene that gave the world Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.

But for the past 18 years he’s lived in Santa Fe with his wife of 40 some years, Jo Harvey Allen, an actress and performance artist whose voice frequently pops up on Terry’s albums.

For the past three years, the thrust of Allen’s musical output “at least CD-wise,” he said, has been reissues of some of his lesser-known work from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Among the recent re-issues are Juarez (originally released in 1975) a wild, violent, desperate, often funny but ultimately tragic tour of the underbelly of the Southwest; Amerasia, a soundtrack for Wolf-Eckart B├╝hler’s 1985 film, which dealt with Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War and the Americans who stayed there after the war; and The Silent Majority, which Allen describes as “a compilation of out-takes, in-takes, mis-takes, work tapes, added tos, taken froms, omissions and foreign materials.” The original album cover was a photo of Allen with Nancy Reagan taken at the in Washington, D.C. where Allen had won a National Gallery award for video arts.

While you won’t find it in record stores, another Allen CD can be found in the book version of Dug Out, a multi-media work that involves writing, painting, video and sculpture installations, and a theater presentation. The work, Allen said, is loosely based on the lives of his father -- a one-time pro-baseball player who promoted wrestling matches and rock ‘n‘ roll shows in Lubbock in the ‘50s -- and his mother, a professional jazz pianist. The CD is a recording of a live recording of the Dugout theater piece broadcast on National Public Radio.

Soon to be reissued is Pedal Steal, originally commissioned as a soundtrack by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company in the ‘80s.

The song cycle revolves around true stories a steel guitarist named Wayne Gayley, who toured in bands around Texas and New Mexico and died of a drug overdose in the late 70s. “It came from a bunch of stories that a guy named Roxy Gordon told me,“ he said, referring to the American Indian artist, musician and writer who for a brief time in the ‘70s published Picking Up the Tempo, a paper in Albuquerque dedicated to country music.

Allen has no current plans for a CD of new material. “I steadily write songs, but not necessarily songs to put out on a CD,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that, just sit down and try to write a CD.”

But who knows when a play or a painting could bloom into a full-blown new Terry Allen album?

XXX

The Handsome Family sing melodies that sound as if they came out of scratchy old cowboy records or dusty hymnals secretly smuggled out of backwoods churches. And the lyrics take you to mysterious places, telling strange tales of ghosts, dead children, murders, supernatural animals, drunken domestic disputes, uneasy little victories and somber little defeats.

The Family is actually just a couple -- Brett and Rennie Sparks, who live and record at their home in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill.

Rennie writes the lyrics to the songs and plays instruments including the autoharp, which adds an old-timey Carter Family sound. Brett is the lead vocalist. “He sings like you’d imagine Abe Lincoln would sing,” a wise critic once wrote.

Though they usually are identified as a Chicago act, and they say they make most of their money touring in the United Kingdom, Brett has roots in New Mexico.

“I grew up in the Southwest,” he said in a recent interview. “I was raised in Texas and New Mexico. I was born in a little town, Perryton, Texas up near the Oklahoma border. My father worked in the oil fields. We lived in Bush country, Odessa, Midland. And we lived in Farmington. I graduated from UNM. I was there in Albuquerque for five years in the 80s.”

Moving to New Mexico has affected Rennie’s songwriting.

“Chicago was a dark, gloomy place with terrible weather,” she said. “There was no sense of being in the natural world living in Chicago.”

But New Mexico, she said, has been good for her mental health. “No matter how bad the day’s been there’s always going to be a good sunset,” she said. “Here there’s more songs with the color gold and the color red. In Chicago there were more songs about snow.”

In recent years, The Handsome Family was in Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, a captivating documentary by Andrew Douglas, an Englishman who, along with singer Jim White as a tour guide explores whiskey-soaked honky tonks, backwoods Pentecostal churches, truckstops, swamps, coal mines, prisons and barber shops of the South. Not only did they perform their music, but Douglas inserted a conversation between Brett and Rennie talking in the car about the significance of blood in Southern literature, music and religion.

Meanwhile, Rennie contributed a chapter to a 2004 collection of essays called The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. She wrote about the classic American murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” which is the story of a woman stabbed to death in the woods by her lover.

The group’s most recent album, 2003’s Singing Bones, showed a definite southwestern influence. There was much desert imagery -- red-rock deserts, dusty mesas, rattlesnakes and mountain cats -- and even hints of Mexican music here and there.

“I’m writing a song about all these strange little graveyards you find in Albuquerque tucked away where the city’s grown around them,” Rennie said.

Added Brett, “We’ve got songs about a bowling alley bar, about deer hunting, about golf course vandalism …” The couple lives near a golf course, he explained.

The New Mexico landscape is a perfect backdrop for The Handsome Family’s stark, spooky and sometimes tragic songs.

Brett pointed out that there’s a long tradition of such themes in country music.

“I believe fundamentally that any work of art that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that we’re all mortal is incomplete or childish,” Rennie said. “I try to encompass that in my songs, even happy songs. That doesn’t mean that I’m obsessed by suicide and murder. Everybody’s had a dream where you’ve killed someone. That doesn’t mean you want to go out and murder people in your waking life.

“It doesn’t mean you should be paralyzed by fear and loathing,” she said. “You should appreciate things for their ephemeral nature. It’s nothing to be scared of.”

XXX

Joe West recently experienced a “One of Our 50 is Missing” moment. During an interview on Scottish BBC during his Fall 2005 tour of the British Isles, a radio host was praising West’s song “Trotsky’s Blues,” a surreal little rocker in which the singer sees the Russian revolutionary at Santa Fe’s Bert’s Burger Bowl.

The interviewer stated that Leon Trotsky had been killed in New Mexico and asked whether there was a “Trotsky visitor center” in Santa Fe. (Trotsky was assassinated near Mexico City.) At first West thought he was joking. “By the time I realized what he was saying, I had to play a song,” West said in a recent interview.

Maybe it’s just a testament to West’s songwriting. Even his funniest numbers ring true. A listener is tempted to believe even his wilder fantasies.

Many of West’s songs are down-to-earth tales of real-live working folks -- “Mike the Can Man,” about a neighbor of West’s who earns a living recycling trash; “Anita Pita” a single mom who cleans art galleries; “Rehab Girl,” who works at a substance-abuse treatment center and “likes her men shady.”

Many of his songs are strong on social commentary, such as “$2,000 Navajo Rug,” which lampoons Santa Fe excess.

Then there’s a whole body of Joe West “Jamie” songs, dealing with West’s mythical composite lost-love muse, who has survived domestic violence, alcoholism and untold stupid love affairs. “But the truth of the matter is I ain’t never loved a girl like her before,” West sings of Jamie on “Reprimand.”

And in his live show, you’ll be treated to West versions of cheesy ‘70s pop-country hits. At his CD release party for Human Cannonball at Santa Fe’s Tiny’s Lounge last year, he had the whole crowd singing along with every word of Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

West, 38, the son of Santa Fe artist Jerry West, has deep roots in Santa Fe. After his parents’ divorce, he split most of his school years between Santa Fe and South Dakota, where his mother had moved.

“I went to a different school almost every year,” West said. He graduated from high school in South Dakota. He graduated from the University of South Dakota, where he majored in theater.

After college in 1991 he went to New York City to pursue a career in theater. There he hooked up with a gaggle of bluegrass musicians.

“I started playing in subways,” he said. “I evolved from being a theater person to being a musician full time.”

West had dabbled in music much earlier. “When I was in junior high I got very much into punk rock, and tried to start a punk rock band, which sounded very much like an alternative folk country band,” he said. “As hard as I tried I never quite became a punk rocker.

West moved to Austin, Texas in the late ‘90s where he formed a band called Joe West & The Sinners.

But before his move to Austin, West was hanging out in Santa Fe. He befriended members of a band called ThaMuseMeant and recorded his first proper CD, Trip to Roswell New Mexico.

When West moved back to Santa Fe in 2001, ThaMuseMeant introduced him to a whole community of musicians including bands like Hundred Year Flood and Goshen who formed the nucleus of what became Frogville Records.

West has recorded two albums for the label, South Dakota Hairdo and Human Cannonball.

But he’s got outside projects as well. He’s a member of a Santa Fe gospel group called Bethleham and Eggs. And for more experimental music he’s got this contraption called The Intergalactic Honky-Tonk Machine, which West says is a "time traveling music device," which includes a drum machine, electronic tape loops and a smoke machine.

And he’s talking about doing a concept album about an “androgynous time-traveler space character” who claims to be the love child of a glam-rock star, conceived in New Mexico during the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Now that’s alternative country!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:29 PM

    nice to Joe getting some press!
    we did an interview with him last year, over at
    www.crookedrain.co.uk

    ReplyDelete

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