Songs That Fall from the Sky

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

"The worst job I ever had," Brett volunteers, "was as a floater. It was a temp job. I would replace people on their breaks at DDB Needham, which is one of the biggest advertising firms in the country. I would be on the fifth floor, and somebody would come up and say, 'Okay, Brett, you're needed on the 21st floor.' I'd go up there and I would sit in somebody's chair for 15 minutes. Then somebody would come up and say, 'Now go to the 17th floor.' I floated floor to floor, just filling a seat in case somebody came to the reception desk. And if they did, you'd say, 'She'll be back in seven minutes.' It was so absurd. You realize why people drink."

"This was a job you could do drunk, easily," Rennie concurs.

The early years in Chicago were rough emotionally as well as economically. To stay sane, Brett wrote songs and played in bands, and Rennie wrote short stories and drafts of novels ("getting some things published in little literary magazines," she notes, "and coming in second in a lot of literary contests"). When Brett brought Rennie the lyrics that became "Arlene" and asked for her help, she seized on it not just as a creative problem but a chance at raising her own spirits.

"There was a Walgreen's across the street from us with a huge liquor section," she remembers. "We were over there all the time. The woman who worked at the cash register there, her name was Arlene. She had these terrible hairy, spiny warts all over her face and she had this nasty voice. She was always furious. Even when she was out in the parking lot on her cigarette break, she was smoking in this rageful way—some people can smoke, and you just know they're angry. She was always angry.

"I liked her name, and I just thought, wouldn't it be nice if we could write a song where she's beautiful and she's taken off into the woods by someone madly in love with her? Maybe she'd feel better, and I'd feel better too. I imagined myself out in the woods. Even in a forest where bad things happen, it's still a more livable place than a city street where there's garbage everywhere. It made me feel more connected to the world, even though it would have taken two hours to get from where we lived out into nature."

If the first set of songs they wrote together was a mish-mash of country and punk influences, the next batch moved more deliberately toward traditional folk and country sources. Up to a certain point, Rennie says, she thought songwriting "was for fun on the side. But what happened was, when we started really listening to this folk music with its great lyrics, we could see the potential that was there. If you're thinking about songwriting in terms of the Ramones or something, it's like, yeah, there are some funny lyrics, but then you hear something like 'Knoxville Girl' and there's so much there that it makes you think about all that can be contained in one song. I started getting more interested when I realized [songwriting] could be done in a different way and could be more satisfying."

Brett had been headed in that direction for a much longer time. Musically, he says, "Our biggest influence, pool of song, is a lot of the stuff people associate with the Harry Smith collection, the folk music that was recorded in the 'teens and '20s, which has antecedents in the British Isles and Scots-Irish stuff, the Appalachians. If you listen to our songs knowing that music enough, you will figure out the fact that we've extensively ripped it off. A lot of the vocal mannerisms, the contours of the melodies, are directly traceable to those ancestors. See, the great thing about folk music like that is that when you cover something, it's impossible to rip it off. It's just like another cut on the stone, another refinement of the song. Even if it sucks, just to make the thing go on is the important part—the fact that it persists in time."

They released Milk and Scissors in 1996; it was the first record that hewed to the songwriting formula they've followed since: all lyrics by Rennie, all music by Brett. "On the second record," Rennie says, "we got pretty serious about it. We were both kind of falling apart then emotionally, and trying to comfort ourselves and save ourselves by writing songs that would make us feel better." The record also gave the Handsomes a first sniff of modest commercial success. It garnered them a brief tour in the UK, where they would eventually grow more popular than they are here in the States. And though Rennie discreetly terms that first UK sojourn "disastrous," the message seemed clear enough to Brett. "As we started traveling a little more, it became apparent that it was a big world, full of idiots that we could sell this to," he laughs. "When you're just playing in your hometown, even if it is a big city like Chicago, you never think, hey, we could make a living out of this. But when you start to go over the ocean..."

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