Chicago tends to hemorrhage talent: new Albuquerque residents Brett and Rennie Sparks aren't the first bright lights to split the scene and they won't be the last. But as Chicago artists go, they were remarkably self-contained anyway. Though their last couple albums have certainly benefited from contributions by Jeff Tweedy and Andrew Bird, the couple did after all ax their drummer in favor of a machine and have recorded everything since 1998 or so on their home computer. Their new fifth album, Twilight (Carrot Top), arranged and performed almost completely by Brett (with lyricist Rennie on occasional autoharp and "female vocals"), shows a hint of karaoke cheesiness and self-parody not heard since Through the Trees's inferior predecessor, Milk and Scissors; it may be that this tendency was mitigated somewhat by the presence of guests in recent years. But Sparks and Sparks are still one of the best songwriting teams Chicago's ever produced, and the bare farm-furniture simplicity of their eerie hymns is part of what makes them so distinctive. Brett's vocals are less caricaturishly monotonal this time around--more than one person I've played this record for has noted a perverse resemblance to Garrison Keillor--and lend a weighty dignity to Rennie's motifs of remorse, death, and the relative innocence of the natural realm, teeth and blood and all. Animal death resonates more than human mortality here--and the body count shoots into the billions with "Passenger Pigeons." "Peace in the Valley Once Again" is Rennie's prayer for a better world ("When they closed the last shopping mall crickets sang in crumbling walls / Termites ate through the doors / Rabbits hopped along the floors / The empty shelves swarmed with bees / Cash machines sprouted weeds....And there was peace in the valley once again"), and actual birds, not avimorphic angels, are the sentient guardian types in "Birds You Cannot See." The Handsome Family's notions of the big abstract concepts--truth, beauty, peace, happiness--aren't everyone else's; in fact they're not exactly anyone else's, and that's what makes them so vital. Saturday, December 8, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Avenue; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Owen.