The Restless Spirits of The West


I always knew that this blogazine would favor film and television, but I really have meant to write more about music and books than I have.  I guess they just digest differently.  After several months of enjoying this particular album, I'm finally inspired to say a few things about it.

The Handsome Family
Singing Bones - 2003

If you're anything like me (and God help you if you are), since DVD and digital viewing has become more common (if not standard) for you over the past decade, you will have found that there are two kind of TV shows; those whose opening theme songs you skip, and those whose opening theme songs you watch every single time, even when you're binging hard.  One of those theme songs that has most consistently thrilled me is "Far from Any Road" by the Handsome Family, used in the first season of True Detective.  Once the season ended and I wanted to keep hearing the song, I went and sought out the source; the Handsome Family's 2003 album, Singing Bones.  Since that time, I've listened to three of their other albums as well, but Singing Bones is still the one I come back to.

I'm not going to go into any particular detail about the band as though I know what I'm talking about.  I know that they're a married couple, Brett & Rennie Sparks and they do a lot of this moody alt-country that some people call Gothic Country or other varied terms to that effect.  Whatever.  I'm not here to front as an expert like the douche-kabobs on Pitchfork.  I just really love this album.

In a way, this really isn't all that far outside the purview of the kinds of things I've been writing about here for the past year.  Singing Bones is effectively an horror anthology in musical form.  Far from Any Road is about a cactus that blooms once in 10,000 years; the sight of which causes madness and death.  The Forgotten Lake seems to be about the outlet of the mythic river Lethe, or at the very least, some haunted place.  24 Hour Store is about a guy working in the titular market, either haunted by ghosts or slipping into madness; a vague overlapping of possibilities that lays at the heart of so many or our best horror films as well.  The Bottomless Hole is about a farmer who found, well, a seemingly bottomless hole out behind his barn and can't accept that it could possible be truly bottomless until he proves it to himself.  You get the idea.  Obsessive behavior is a common theme, which is a true form of haunting, even removed from supernatural inferences.

The music is equally moody and haunting.  They really carve out a niche of unique sensations that film has poorly explored.  The twangy country music evokes wide open spaces, which are not what we're used to seeing in film, but are nonetheless haunting.  It's possible that dark and narrow places work better visually, and it took musicians to explore these other kinds of hauntings removed from the visual cues that so dominate our other senses in film.  By doing it musically, I find that they're able to evoke  other sensations, like reading, but bypassing a certain conscious awareness through the music.  The songs remain spooky through repeated listenings, which isn't something I can say about a lot of movies.

I don't mean to suggest that this is the soundtrack for your next haunted house.  This is beautiful music with deep roots in old school country music.  It's a damn shame they never got to work with Johnny Cash because he would have been right at home with these tunes.  Brett Sparks sings in an unaffected baritone (thus the evocation of the Man in Black) that is readily believable as, say, that farmer with the bottomless pit out back the barn.  Rennie has the kind of airy tone that would have suggested a ghost girl in the Badlands no matter what she was singing, so it's her good fortune that she found such a suitable haunted crossroads for her voice and lyrics to come together.

I know a lot of people who say "Oh I like all kinds of music, just, you know, the good stuff."  They're often talking about country when they throw that qualifier about "the good stuff" in.  If you let them go into detail, they'll tell you how they like old school country but not "that radio stuff."  Well folks, this is "the good stuff."  It's not just the lyrics that summon the spirits of things that we've lost.  The music itself echoes from out of the past, a ghost of the American west, calling out to us over the plains.

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