Incidentally, I've never seen "Tyra." I'd made a Jerry Springer joke, and my editor thought that was so last century....
Washington City Paper, June 30, 2006
Last Days of Wonder
The Handsome Family
Brett Sparks’ bipolar disorder is to the Handsome Family’s music what champagne is to Lawrence Welk’s—both a metaphorical representation of tone and the key to enjoying it. I can’t help but approach Last Days of Wonder via familial experience: My father was both a manic-depressive and, dark-comically, an elevator operator. Few instruments reflect that particular imbalance better than the musical saw Family adjunct David Coulter wields on “These Golden Jewels,” its up-and-down tones (and the plinking of Sparks’ banjo) contrasting with the song’s nightmarish quality. “I drove circles in the meadow, threw TVs off a cliff,” Sparks recounts in lyrics—written by his wife, Rennie Sparks—that might be fiction or documentary. “I scattered dirty needles in a grassy ditch.” Sometimes the Sparks’ visions amplify our own, and sometimes they’re just plain crazy; either way, they’re harrowing. In “Bowling Alley Bar,” when Brett moans, to a cornball country setting, “Sorry about your sunglasses/I didn’t mean to step on them/I didn’t mean to laugh when you cried”—well, that’s drunk talk, whether the intoxication is courtesy of bourbon or serotonin. And when things get really gnarly, as in the peculiarly placid “After We Shot the Grizzly” (in the second verse, they shoot and eat the horses—to a loping cowboy rhythm), we’re glad to be the listener rather than the singer. That sense of distance is also the reason why the couple’s recordings, made by Brett in their garage studio in Albuquerque, N.M., are more appealing and less self-indulgent than their concerts, which sometimes feel like a taping of Tyra. It’s easier to appreciate the subtlety of Brett’s sonic touches from afar: the shimmer of synthesized glass harmonica on “Beautiful William,” the trebly howl of an electronic harmony line on “All the Time in Airports.” Last Days of Wonder is good art and good psychic testimony, a revealing evocation of what it’s like to commune with madness. It must be exhausting to feel that way every minute, but experiencing it from the comfort of your living room can be fascinating, even moving. When Brett’s voice swells to celebrate the reckless memory of “flapping your broken wings in the green, green grass,” for just a few seconds, you envy him.