The Handsome Family

The Handsome Family

Enter the dark forest of The Handsome Family and let the beautiful branches surround you. This is haunting music in the most wonderful way— brilliant, emotionally-charged and totally unique. The Handsome Family is a 20-year songwriting collaboration between husband and wife, Brett (music) and Rennie Sparks (words). May 2013 brings the release of The Handsome Family’s “Wilderness.” Their lyrics and music are very intense, highly descriptive and full of meticulously-researched narrative and exhilarating musical re-imaginings of everything from Appalachian holler, psychedelic rock, Tin Pan Alley and medieval ballad. Of course you don’t have to be a music historian to love these songs. They are full of romantic longing for nature’s mysterious beauty and the tiny wonders of everyday life. They pair sweet melody with sad harmony, love poetry with dark beats. This is music that makes you shiver and cry, but also makes you happy to be alive.
The Handsome Family’s music and lyricism has always attracted intellectual and devoted fans. Their songs are frequently covered by many notable artists including Jeff Tweedy, Andrew Bird, Kelly Hogan and Christy Moore. Their work has garnered praise from Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, and an unnamed singer on American Idol.
The band has appeared in the movie I’m Your Man, a tribute to Leonard Cohen and Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, a back roads travelogue of arcane Americana music. They have appeared on numerous Irish TV shows as well as Jools’ Hollands’ Later.
A live review by Mike Ritchie in The Scotsman noted, “There’s a lot of smiling at this gig, on and off stage. That might surprise many people who have only read about the duo’s penchant for songs riddled with darkness, death and the macabre. But Rennie Sparks and her husband, Brett, are funny live…through their chit-chat, the song introductions and the banter with the audience…this sell-out show was a knockabout celebration of the deadpan, a real joy… Rennie’s words plus Brett’s music and strong, mellow vocals create a magical potion of grim fairytales in a rock and blues pot with grinning unavoidable.”

Sean Rowe has spent much of the last year traveling the country with just his guitar, performing in people’s living rooms. “It’s like I’m some kind of a bearded salesman,” he says, “Going door to door but instead of vacuum cleaners I’m selling all these feelings that come with the songs. It’s a really intense experience for listeners to have me there in their homes playing. They’re not used to having a stranger show up, play music, drink their beer and eat their food. But I think that’s how we’re supposed to be. It only feels strange because we’ve made it that way.”

It is this same sense of unflinching connection that has shaped Rowe’s extraordinary new album Madman. The singer, who The Wall Street Journal wrote “recalls the ecstatic intensity of late-’60s Van Morrison and stark subtlety of late-era Johnny Cash” has created a beautifully primal work. Madman is deliberately, if not defiantly, simple in both arrangement and composition. It is soul music in the purest and most literal sense, hypnotic rhythms, warmly distorted guitars and Rowe’s incredible voice recalling a time, real or imagined, when music and people seemed distinctly more connected.

Rowe’s previous Anti- release, The Salesmen and The Shark, was a far more polished affair recorded in Los Angeles with the accompaniment of West Coast session players. This time around, Rowe is intent on replicating the immense emotional power of his live performances. The process began with Rowe alone in an upstate New York recording studio with his guitar, laying down riffs that would become songs. For Madman, an album he was self-producing, Rowe wanted to strip away much of the production and focus instead on the voice and guitar style he had perfected in theaters, nightclubs and living rooms. “I came to this realization that the songs don’t have to be structurally heavy to be intense,” he explains. “It’s more about the honesty and emotion behind the delivery. A lot of these songs are pretty simple but I was really thoughtful about that, it was intentional. I wanted to go right to the heart.”

The record begins with the title track Madman. A rhythmic guitar, lilting piano and melodic bass, punctuated by horns all of it in the service of Rowe’s incredibly soulful voice. “My singing is definitely more playful on this record,” he says. “Lyrically the song is about living this life when you’re on the road more than you’re at home.” It is an immensely personal and heartfelt song for the recent father and dedicated naturalist, with Rowe singing, “When the road takes me to the other side of the world/Let a walnut tree replace me/Give my body back to the birds”.

Rowe came of age listening to a father’s record collection that included The Beach Boys, Elvis Presley and more. But in his late teens it was soul and blues that spoke to the bourgeoning singer-songwriter. Rowe says the sound of Madman is influenced, in large part, by the hypnotic driving guitars of Delta blues. “I was listening to records by R.L. Burnside and John Lee Hooker and others which are basically just guitar and drums and really raw sounding. I was also listening to the early soul records like Otis Redding and Ray Charles. I didn’t want to try and duplicate those sounds, just take aspects of them and make them my own.”

The influence of Delta blues is most apparent on the album’s second track “Shine My Diamond Ring” with its driving repetitive guitar and stomping bass drum. “The guitar sound was influenced by John Lee Hooker,” Rowe says. “The version you hear on the record — which was mostly a live cut — almost never happened as it was very last minute. We already had an earlier version of Shine that i was happy with but on this particular day we had about 15 minutes to kill till wrap up time and i felt if i grabbed the drummer and recorded this song live with just the two of us, I could nail it even better. I’m glad I did that.”

“Desiree” is a raucous deconstructed take on early disco, with a pulsating bass, Nile Rogers-like guitar picking and a looser than ever Rowe singing with absolute abandon. “It’s so different than any song I’ve done before, Rowe says. “It’s a really fun song and it felt good. It’s one of those songs that I felt like I needed to write. With the thumping bass and drums it needed a lot of space so we tried to keep as many holes in it as possible. The vocals were cut live in one take.”

On Sean Rowe’s latest, the adage less is more is on full display. This is a record of extraordinary honesty intent on establishing a connection. In its deliberate simplicity there is pure sonic emotion. “I wanted to go right to the heart with this,” he explains. “And sometimes that meant seeing how much we could remove. It helps to have a great recording. But I would rather have great performances and that’s what I was after here. Sometimes when you’re listening to a piece of music you don’t have to think about it, you just feel it. It’s primal and you trust it.”

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World Cafe Live Philadelphia - Upstairs

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The Handsome Family with Sean Rowe

Friday, June 28 · Doors 7:00 PM / Show 8:00 PM at World Cafe Live Philadelphia - Upstairs