Songs That Fall from the Sky

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

Their third record, Through the Trees (1998), led with a song that ended up in heavy rotation on college/indie radio, "Weightless Again" ("This is why people OD on pills, or jump from the Golden Gate Bridge/Anything to feel weightless again"). This was the big career breakthrough, such as it was—meaning it left them in a position, if they were frugal, to start living off the proceeds of CD sales and touring. Rennie stopped filing. Brett stopped floating.

IV. I AM AFRAID OF BRIDGES, SOMETIMES I HAVE TO TURN AROUND

"Another thing I like about folk music," says Brett Sparks, "is you don't know anything about these people, and it conjures up all these images and these wild stories in your mind. Like Bascom Lamar Lunsford, he's a total wacko who's on the Harry Smith thing. You just conjure in your mind all these stories about people, what they look like, who they're married to—"

"And usually they're wrong," Rennie admits. "He [Lunsford] turned out not to be crazy at all."

"You know all these things about Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger," Brett says ruefully. "There's no mystery there."

"I was just sure that Dock Boggs had to be in prison," Rennie recalls, "but he turned out to be a Sunday school teacher. You make up things and usually they're not right at all, but I think it's nice not to have their images stuffed down your throat."

Brett laughs. "People are always making up this absurd stuff about us, too, and I just say, go with it. I don't care. It's fine. If they think we're some weird hippie Goth creeps, that's all right. It's better that way.

"People will ask us," he says wonderingly, "if we've done the things in our songs. 'Have you killed a man?'" He guffaws. If the Handsome Family inspire more bizarre fan queries than most mid-level indie cult bands, it's in part because their records fit no ready frame of musical or cultural reference. They don't suggest where, or when, these two are from. It's easier to imagine them taking baked goods to a barn-raising than hanging out at an after-party with the White Stripes. So fans wonder, ask questions, make up stories about the Handsome Family in the same way Brett and Rennie made up stories about Dock Boggs.

Most of that attention gets directed at Rennie. She's the one who writes those odd, lovely, often surreal lyrics, and it's easier to talk about word pictures than musical pictures. To an extent she cultivates the eccentric caricatures. In her concert patter, her Handsome Family newsletters, and sometimes in interviews, there is a line of shtick in which Rennie vamps as the sweet but vaguely menacing madwoman, spouting fragments of mythology and the names of dead lovers as she goes. Her recent newsletter announcing the release of Last Days of Wonder began thus: "The Greeks adorned their tombs with parsley wreaths for the plant was said to have sprung from the blood of the baby Archemorus (literally, "forerunner of death"), who, left alone on a riverbank by his nursemaid, was dragged into the water by a dragon and devoured." She told an interviewer once that her mother used to warn her against Santa Claus ("a very bad man"), insisting that he had started World War II.

Except that the Santa Claus story is not a joke, she swears. And St. Nick was not the only peril that young Rennie Rosner was encouraged to see in the larger gentile world as a Jewish girl from Long Island: "My parents always told me if anyone asked me my religion, I should tell them I was a Pilgrim and my family came over on the Mayflower. I never understood what their problem was, but then I realized later they're just really paranoid Jews, who feel like there's going to be some rounding up of Jews at a train station any minute now. When they were growing up, little kids were getting thrown in ovens across the sea, so I think they kind of still feel like the potential for that is there all the time. They were nervous for me to leave New York. They thought if I moved away, something bad would happen. For some reason, they felt like New York was the only safe place to be a Jew." At this, she laughs softly.

Music didn't interest Rennie that much as a kid, though certain records did stick in her mind and stay: "My parents used to put me to sleep with these scratchy Burl Ives records. They were really scary, some of them, but at the same time really comforting. He's got that soft, sweet voice, and the songs always had little animals playing in the woods, but there's a menacing quality underneath it that I don't think you're supposed to notice as a kid. Unfortunately I did. There's something really scary about his voice. He sounds like he's singing on the top of a mountain and so alone, and he can't ever be comforted except by singing, because no one can ever get up on top of that snow-covered mountain where he is..."

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