Songs That Fall from the Sky

Meet the Handsome Family: The story of the band that forgot time

"There's something about songs that lets them do things we can't do for each other. It's a different language, almost a dream language. It can make you feel alive again, aware of beauty again. You feel like suddenly you're in a magical place. A song can feel like it's saving your life. It's important. Art has a purpose. Feeling alive is very hard to do sometimes. It's easy to be numb."

So you take inspiration where you find it. Before Last Days of Wonder was, per their label's press release, "a collection of love songs sung in airports, garbage dumps, drive-thru windows, and shark-infested waters," it was something else entirely. Rennie can tell you precisely where it all started. "Brett knows," she attests. "It was all supposed to be about this little dog named Ladyfingers—"

"Oh, shut up, you weirdo," Brett interjects. He laughs as if to underline the fact this is a bit they do, and she's joking.

She's not joking. "This little dog lived in a yard about six blocks from our house," she explains after Brett desists. "I don't know whose dog he was or what his name was. But every time you walked by this yard, he would jump up on the fence and beg to be petted. Just the sweetest dog. And I started petting him every time I went by. And then one time I came by and there was, like, a line of people waiting to pet this dog, because everyone loved this dog so much. He went down the line giving people a lick. I wanted to write a whole record in tribute to Ladyfingers—I named her Ladyfingers because she was very delicate."

Rennie doesn't seem to notice that she's switched the gender of the hound in midstream. "I loved this dog so much," she continues, "I wanted to give her something. So I took my glove off and gave it to her. She took it across the yard and buried it. And I tried, you know, I wanted every song to be about her and about how great she was and how happy she made us all. The moments I spent petting that dog were moments when I felt incredible joy out of nowhere. And I think I was trying to capture some of that. But it's a hard thing to capture."

"It is indeed," Brett finally allows, clearly hoping that will close the subject.


a. Harry Smith explains

In 1952, a 29-year-old filmmaker, music archivist, and bohemian moocher named Harry Smith compiled 84 traditional music recordings on six boxed Folkways LPs collectively titled the Anthology of American Folk Music. The performers included people who would come to be known as legends of early blues and country music and people who would forever sound like fleeting, anonymous cranks with a single story to tell. All they had in common, the deacons and the drinkers alike, was that they were singing old songs (some dating at least as far back as the British Isles in the 15th century, some based on events that happened only a few years before they were recorded) and they were making folk music once removed: Unlike the field recordings that the Lomax clan and others had been harvesting for years, all 84 sides on the Anthology had been cut in the late '20s or early '30s for commercial release. Somehow all this apparently disparate music created its own sense of place—"Smithville," Greil Marcus dubbed it in his 1997 liner notes to the reissued set.

The few thousand people who bought the 1952 pressing were left to puzzle over the bizarre yet clearly painstaking way it had been assembled. The six records were paired off in sets labeled 'Ballads,' 'Social Music,' and 'Songs,' each color-coded to correspond to a primal element: red for fire, blue for air, green for water. The booklet Smith designed featured big, bold block numbers for each song and was festooned with cryptic symbols. Many years later, he explained to folk music historian John Cohen that the point of the Anthology, for him, lay less in the music than in the patterns expressed by this particular set of songs when organized in this manner. "I'd been reading Plato's Republic," he said. "He's jabbering on about music, how you have to be careful about changing the music because it might upset or destroy the government. Everybody gets out of step, you are not to arbitrarily change it because you might undermine the Empire State Building without knowing it."

"I felt social changes would result from it," he said of the finished work.

Harry Smith, in other words, was crazy as hell—deluded enough to believe a sprawling compendium of obscure 78s released on a tiny record label could effect broad alchemical changes in the ground we walk on and the air we breathe, that it could change the world.

b. Brett explains

"We met in college. On Long Island. I was waiting for a date in the student union building, a date at a dance. It sounds like a '50s song. Rennie the crazy woman came along with a bottle of some kind of alcohol. Tequila, I think. Cactus juice. And some card with a quote from Thomas Pynchon on it. I think she had a tambourine for some reason. She was probably on LSD, too.

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