Ter­rell’s Tune-Up The Hand­some Fam­ily’s Un­seen

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - on rings of ice/And as the songs turned to water we couldn’t help but cry.” Let the Hand­some Fam­ily’s songs turn to water in your brain so that strange but beau­ti­ful plants can grow in­side there. Learn more about the band’s mythos at www.hand­some­fam­ily.c

Like the best al­bums by The Hand­some Fam­ily, their lat­est one, Un­seen, is a lit­er­ary as well as a mu­si­cal ad­ven­ture. With lyrics by Ren­nie Sparks and melodies and most of the vo­cals by her hus­band, Brett Sparks, this record is not just a col­lec­tion of sweet coun­try tunes. It’s full of amaz­ing sto­ries, un­for­get­table im­ages, and echoes of an­cient myths in con­tem­po­rary con­texts.

Recorded at the cou­ple’s home stu­dio in Al­bu­querque, Un­seen starts out with a mod­ern out­law bal­lad called “Gold.” Brett sings, “Got a tat­too of a snake and a ski mask on my face/But I woke up in a ditch be­hind the Stop ‘n’ Go/ Ly­ing in the weeds with a bul­let in my gut, watch­ing dol­lar bills fly away in the dust.” The Hand­somes don’t give us the full story on how this stick-up went awry. All we know is that this crim­i­nal mas­ter­mind is dy­ing in some va­cant lot and think­ing about that girl with dark eyes who some­how led to his demise.

“The Sil­ver Light” is a snap­shot of a casino, a “for­est of slot ma­chines” with flash­ing lights, cig­a­rettes, al­lyou-can-eat buffets, and old men with oxy­gen tanks drop­ping quar­ters in slot ma­chines. That sounds pretty de­press­ing, but the sweet do­bro pick­ing of long­time Hand­some crony Dave Gu­tier­rez makes it easy to imag­ine it as a happy sa­loon sin­ga­long.

The New Mex­ico State Fair should turn “Tiny Tina” into an ad next year. Brett and Ren­nie sing with child­like in­no­cence about go­ing to the fair; rid­ing the Tilt-A-Whirl; eat­ing chili dogs, fun­nel cakes, and fried beer; and “shoot­ing water guns at grin­ning clowns.” But they have one huge re­gret: For some rea­son they didn’t go see Tiny Tina, “the world’s small­est horse,” and it only cost a dol­lar. “Why didn’t I go see that lit­tle horse?”

“The Sea Rose” is a sailor leg­end, sim­i­lar to that of mer­maids or sirens. A mariner hears the call of this sexy mi­rage beck­on­ing him to join her and marry her in the sea­weed. Even more mys­te­ri­ous is “The Red Door,” which sounds like some long-lost song by The Band with the late Richard Manuel chan­nel­ing New Or­leans R&B. It’s about a beau­ti­ful woman with im­plied su­per­nat­u­ral ori­gins.

One of the most mem­o­rable songs on Un­seen is “Back in My Day,” the Sparks’ take on nos­tal­gia. “We had maps that un­folded back in my day/You could drink from the river/We had gods made of clay.” At first it seems as if they’re mak­ing fun of old coots belly­ach­ing about the good old days. But Ren­nie Sparks would never write some­thing that ob­vi­ous. In­stead, it seems she’s ex­press­ing a yearn­ing for the good old days from an in­vis­i­ble world none of the rest of us have ever seen. The next time I hear some vinyl fetishist yam­mer­ing about the su­pe­ri­or­ity of LPs and 45s, I’ll be tempted to sing these lines from this song: “And mu­sic sounded bet­ter. We recorded

Also rec­om­mended: ▼ Ex­e­cute Amer­i­can Folk­lore by Johnny Dowd. You might not hear any ob­vi­ous sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween The Hand­some Fam­ily and Dowd, but both ap­peared in a won­der­ful 2003 doc­u­men­tary by mu­si­cian Jim White called Search­ing for the Wrong-Eyed Je­sus. Dowd, in fact, was touted as “al­ter­na­tive coun­try” when his first al­bum was re­leased in the late ’90s. The first time I saw him live was at a party for No De­pres­sion mag­a­zine at the famed Austin honky-tonk the Bro­ken Spoke.

But the only thing that sounds re­motely coun­try about Dowd on his last sev­eral al­bums is his Pauls Val­ley, Ok­la­homa, drawl. This new al­bum is much closer to hip-hop or elec­tron­ica — though com­mer­cial ra­dio sta­tions de­voted to those for­mats are no more likely to play this al­bum than is your ba­sic hot new coun­try sta­tion. And some songs are in­fused with Latin touches (what might be de­scribed as a Mar­tian mambo) or even metal. Truth be told, Johnny Dowd doesn’t re­ally sound much like any­one but Johnny Dowd.

And I hap­pen to love that sound. Here Dowd him­self plays all the in­stru­ments — ex­cept the in­stru­ment named Anna Coogan, who sings back­ground vo­cals on sev­eral songs and lead vo­cals on one. Dowd mostly speaks rather than sings his lyrics. There are some doozies on Ex­e­cute

Amer­i­can Folk­lore. He ded­i­cates the ul­tra funky “Last Laugh” to his mother, “a union maid if ever there was one.” In the song, how­ever, his mom is a call girl. But the story, laced with Bi­b­li­cal im­agery, ac­tu­ally deals with some bit­ter loser — lots of Dowd pro­tag­o­nists fall into this cat­e­gory — plot­ting un­spec­i­fied re­venge against those who have wronged him.

“Sex­ual Rev­o­lu­tion” is not about the joy of sex. Dowd re­cites a tale of a frus­trated man whose cheat­ing wife leaves him in a sad world where “porno­graphic fan­tasies in­fect my brain, fill­ing me up with guilt and shame.” Then in the de­cep­tively up­beat “Whiskey Ate My Brain,” the singer cat­a­logs his phys­i­cal and men­tal de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. “Can­cer ate my liver, God’s an In­dian giver … Co­caine ate my nose, I can’t smell the roses.”

Coogan steps out front in “Brains-a-flame,” which sounds like Dowd has been lis­ten­ing to the old Brazil­ian psy­che­delic Trop­icália band Os Mu­tantes. She sings about her dream man who “chain-smokes my heart three packs a day/He’s like a bad habit who won’t go away.”

In the clos­ing track, “A World With­out Me,” built on the clas­sic “Louie Louie”/”Hang on Sloopy” hook, Dowd muses about the fact that mem­o­ries of his life will quickly fade. But the song only makes me fan­ta­size about ar­chae­ol­o­gists in a fu­ture cen­tury stum­bling across a cache of Dowd al­bums, prompt­ing them to write sur­real the­o­ries about life in the early 21st cen­tury. En­ter the Dowd di­men­sion at www. john­ny­dowd.com.

“The Sil­ver Light” is a snap­shot of a casino, a “for­est of slot ma­chines” with flash­ing lights, cig­a­rettes, all-you-can-eat buffets, and old men with oxy­gen tanks drop­ping quar­ters in slot ma­chines.

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