On their third and latest CD, Through the Trees (Carrot Top), Chicago's Handsome Family emerge as space cowboys in the best sense: anchored by the sparest of electronic beats, shorn of all but the simplest instrumentation, their homespun ballads seem as arid and limitless as a desert. When drummer Mike Werner left the band a year ago, husband-and-wife songwriters Brett and Rennie Sparks started using a drum machine to order their guitar, bass, banjo, and Autoharp; and while such a gadget might seem antithetical to their rural sound, its passionless rhythm actually complements Rennie's morbid lyrics, in which personal relationships turn as strange, beautiful, and menacing as forces of nature. On "Weightless Again" Brett confesses, "I wanted to kiss you, but I wasn't sure how," then draws a prolonged parallel to some South American Indians who couldn't remember how to start a fire even though they all carried torches. And on "I Fell," which begins and ends with a lonely wood block, the singer sees his lover in the icy branches of a tree and again in the mouth of a horse's bleached skull. As the record's title suggests, the wind is a constant, ominous presence; in "The Woman Downstairs" it seamlessly connects these city folk with their western material. The singer befriends the anorexic title character in the laundry room of their apartment building. After the woman dies, a cop steals her TV, her boyfriend sits on the fire escape weeping, and the singer dreams of lying down on the el tracks. "When the wind screamed up Ashland Avenue," croons Brett in his dark baritone, "the corner bars were full by noon." In the Handsome Family's eyes, city slickers and country people alike are stranded in an existential ghost town. Friday, 10 PM, Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln; 773-525-6620. J.R. JONES
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Brad Miller.