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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, May 20, 2009
    No one gets inside things quite like Rennie Sparks. After being attacked by a swarm of fireflies last year, Rennie became fascinated by insects and their behaviour. She spent days studying the ant, the spider, the bug. Therein lies wisdom, as we students of The Proverbs well know. Being Rennie Sparks the resultant songs are full of minutely-detailed observations, and startling in their presumptions. "Insects - they're just about sex and death," she says, and tasks her talented husband Brett to bend his deep Albuquerque voice to these words:
    Darling, my darling, your snapping fangs don’t scare me
    I’ll leap on your spine and love you till you gnaw me down to my wings
    I’ll give you everything
    Before last night's gig began, in exchange for a tenner, Rennie herself handed me a copy of The Handsome Family's new album, Honey Moon (last time you may recall, she sold me a signed copy of her book, Evil, a disturbing tome which I still cherish). I think she enjoys these exchanges with the folks who come to Handsome Family gigs, attracted by her gems of gently skewed lyricism, her husband's canyon-deep voice, their onstage interaction - a study in understated mutual admiration and desire ("I've never seen you without a jacket before," Rennie says as Brett disrobes; shortly afterwards she's telling the audience about her love of his soft feet).

    The chief attraction for most of us is the dark gothic of so many of their songs; so dark, so gothic that you suspect self-parody, knowingness. Often they are works of sheer genius, aching with solicitous humanity, as in Weightless:
    Those poor, lost indians - when the white men found them,
    most died of TB; the rest went insane...
    This is why people OD on pills
    and jump from the Golden Gate Bridge.
    Anything to feel weightless again.
    The preoccupations of the new songs might be summarised in the words of one they shared with us last night: Wild Wood:
    Give me a swamp, a deep dark bog
    Where I can lose my way in pools of slippery mud
    Give me cold, cold rain; a cloud of stinging bugs
    Deadly nightshade, poison oak; give me the wild, wild wood
    The wild, the wild, wild, wild wood

    We can dress in skins, wrap our feet in bark
    And you can growl at me or hit me with a rock
    When you want to say, “I love you” in the dark
    And I will bark like a dog in your arms
    In the wild, the wild, wild, wild wood

    We can make a god out of sticks and bones
    Or we can pray to the trees or pray to the sun
    And our eyes will shine when we start to scream
    With the hungry wolves outside our freezing cave
    In the wild, the wild, wild, wild wood
    Clearly we are many, many miles away from Paul Weller territory here. This is heavy duty interaction with deep nature and brutal eternal verities. It's also hugely funny if you're switched on that way. An audience at a Handsome Family gig doesn't move or talk much: we just listen, hard, jaws dropping at the astonishing visions and coruscating language of Rennie and the joyous way that she and Brett put these over to those who care to be there.