Release Date: Sep 16, 2016
Record label: Loose Music
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Ten albums in, the Handsome Family haven’t run out of odd tales or memorable melodies. Unseen continues the duo’s gothic folk and country aesthetic, filling out the sound with some friendly help. Along the way, they introduce us to a slew of new characters (sometimes just to slay them in three or four minutes). If Brett and Rennie Sparks know their sound and know how to do what they do, it’s because they do it so well.
We live in a fallen world, and Brett Sparks has devoted his life to documenting the sadness and disappointment that is our lot in life. Or at least his lot in life; when the Handsome Family, the musical project Sparks leads with his wife, Rennie Sparks, recorded an album of love songs (2009's Honey Moon), he still found ways to make the experience sound dour and slightly puzzling. The less joyous experiences that dominate 2016's Unseen, the duo's 11th studio album, hardly give Sparks much cause for a happier tone.
If you’re familiar with The Handsome Family, you’ll know that, a couple of years ago, they had their first serious flirtation with the mainstream. "Far from Any Road", from their 2003 LP Singing Bones, was plucked from obscurity to be used as the theme tune to the first season of HBO’s True Detective. That fact is plastered all over the promotional materials for their first full-length to be released since, Unseen; if they’re reluctant to dine out on the connection, somebody forgot to tell their publicist.
After the best part of two decades as a secret pleasure enjoyed by a select few, New Mexico-based husband/wife duo The Handsome Family were suddenly exposed to a far wider audience when their song Far From Any Road was picked up as the True Detective Season 1 theme music. A soaring, sinister slice of gothic-tinged Americana, not only did Far From Any Road perfectly complement the show’s occult-infused theme, it also neatly summarised the strengths of its creators. An intoxicating brew of American traditional country and bluegrass, blended with the vivid storytelling of fiction writer Rennie Sparks told in the sonorous baritone of spouse Brett, it opened up commercial opportunities for the Handsome Family that had been unimaginable during their consistently impressive but largely low key career to date.
The Upshot: Consider it the aural equivalent of painter Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” a work of art so elegant and assured it stands out on its own. Sparse, mysterious and exceptionally alluring, the seductive sound created by The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks reinvent classic gothic music in ways that bows to timeless tradition. Yet, it also suggests a style that’s uniquely their own, imbued with unaffected honesty and quiet dignity in its designs.