You want to talk about some near perfect noir country? Shuffling slowly down a lonesome road and resounding with a tangible humanism every step of the way. The Handsome Family is one of the hidden gems in America?s alt country scene. The Chicago husband/wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks has done their part in redefining what modern country music can be while keeping its classic spirit alive. Their eighth album to date, ?Last Days of Wonder,? is their most satisfying long player since 2000?s ?In the Air? (Carrot Top).
Almost every song here resounds with a tranquil beauty. The uncluttered, unhurried arrangements only kick in faster than a slow trot on two tracks, but it?s the slower numbers that really sink in. ?Your Great Journey? is a wonderful little gothic rumination on death and crossing over. The best work of Townes Van Zandt comes to mind when basking in the lazy rhythms and metaphysical lyrics (minus any Christian symbolism), but his isn?t the only spirit that haunts this American family. Nicola Tesla is revisited vividly in the unofficial title track, ?Tesla?s Hotel Room,? remembering the scientist?s later life through a series of moments, thoughts and daydreams. The duo (words are exclusively by Rennie, music by Brett) paints Tesla?s musings with detail and affection before completing the surreal biography with its haunted conclusion: ?But Tesla grew thin, eating only saltines, going days in his lab without any sleep. Dreaming of God as an X-ray beam, he was hit by a cab while crossing the street. Lying on his bedspread, he struggled to breathe. The Light bulbs exploded. The air filled with wings. In the last days of wonder when spirits still flew, Tesla vacated his half darkened room.? Talk about a perfect tune. The musical backing, including a French horn borrowed straight off the first Band album, is understated, sad and warm in the same stroke. It?s simply a masterpiece of a story song.
Elsewhere Tom Waits? influence is felt (?These Golden Jewels?), and the results sound like something you might hear in a David Lynch movie. Blissful childhood recollections (?Flapping Your Broken Wings?) are relived, and we even get a few fine road songs. And as with any good road-trip, existential metaphors abound.
The music is mostly slow country drifts of guitar and bass augmented by pedal steel, horns, vibes or organ, yet there?s a minimal, classic air to these recordings that belies their living room via laptop origins. It?s clear that the Sparks value the early country era with deep affection, but their stories and subject matter are firmly rooted in modern reality. Even the song about Tesla is speaking to an attitude and viewpoint that is uniquely today, looking back on a time before magic was explained away and wonder replaced by resignation. There are moments on this record that will fuse with your soul if you let them. It?s not a perfect record, but the good songs are so damn good that I have no problem recommending ?Last Days of Wonder? with a strong 8. 8/10 -- Lee Jackson (13 February, 2007)