There are albums I review because they get good reviews elsewhere and, from said reviews, I discern that there might be something interesting about the album in question. Of course, there are albums that get great reviews that I then review because I can sense, intuitively, that they are crap – in such cases, I feel it is my duty to take the piss out of people who orgasm over every hip new thing. You can thank me later. (It should be pointed out, however, that there are plenty of albums that get bad reviews and I end up loving them – Regina Spektor’s last record comes to mind, as does the oft-mentioned on Bollocks! Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket)
So now here’s The Handsome Family (Brett and Rennie Sparks are the only people in this family, which tells me they must be pretty happy) and their Honey Moon, the compound word divided, no doubt, to remind us all that ancient Babylonian cultures had the best wedding custom ever: the parents of the bride had to supply the groom with all the mead (honey booze) and beer he could drink for the first month of his marriage. They used a lunar calendar back in the day, hence the term “honey moon.” There are no songs on Honey Moon about this specific event, but I trust that the Sparkses are aware of it (why? maybe because Brett Sparks looks like a cross between Elvis Costello, Craig Finn, and Santa Claus and if you can’t trust a dude who looks like that, you just can’t trust a dude).
Honey Moon is definitely outside my personal musical comfort-zone. Not out there with like, say, John Zorn, but out there nonetheless. It smacks heavily of old-school country and folk (dude has what can only be described as a nasally whiskey baritone for a voice, and it’s actually quite refreshing to hear) and every song on it, by choice of Rennie Sparks (she writes the lyrics, Brett does the music), is about love. Now, I’m not against love songs on principle, but let’s face it: it’s a lot easier (and thus more common) to write a shitty love song than it is to write a good one. So I had some apprehension going into this album.
The thing is, musically, Honey Moon is actually pretty nice. It absolutely does not rock, at all, but I’m not a “rock rulez, everything else is teh suck” kinda guy. Honey Moon is exceedingly mellow and I’ve had a hard time finding a proper context in which to sit down with the thing. But right now, I’m sitting here drinking coffee with the dog sleeping at my feet and Honey Moon coming up through the speakers. It kinda fits here, I think. There are some over-the-top moments, to be sure. “The Loneliness of Magnets,” sees Brett Sparks getting a little too howly on the chorus, but throughout most of the album, his voice is pretty solid. “Magnets” is followed by the simple, charming, “June Bugs,” and I’m suddenly stricken by the notion that this is probably what I was supposed to feel about Bill Callahan’s last album.
Honey Moon can feel a little long and a little sleepy, and I wonder if it isn’t due to the personal nature of the work – the album is meant, according to the couple’s website, to commemorate their 20th year of marriage and the songs seem like love notes passed back and forth in class, without the cloying cutesiness that implies. The album rarely gets above a slow, meandering tempo (although there is “A Thousand Diamond Rings”, a semi-upbeat number that wouldn’t be out of place on an old Waylon Jennings record) and thus could prove quite a challenge to people who are more oriented toward the generally uptempo genres of hip-hop and rock.
There’s plenty to criticize about Honey Moon, beyond it’s general lack of being my musical cup of tea (it’s like a tea I try because some hippie friend of mine likes it and I like it too, but I’m probably just gonna go back to Earl Gray tomorrow). For one thing, if you’re not part of a happy couple, these mellow love songs might drive you up a fucking wall. Also, the best song on the album is “Wild Wood” (“We can make a god/ out of sticks and bones”) and that’s because we here more from Rennie Sparks, whose voice compliments her husband’s wonderfully. The album would benefit, texturally speaking, from more clear harmonies between the couple. (For those of you who read my Wilco review, what I just did there is suggest something the artist could do to make the album better, rather than lazily suggesting that they’re capable of So Much More and leaving it at that). The album relies to much on Brett Sparks’s baritone to carry the songs and, while it works most of the time (especially on “Darling, My Darling”), his range is too limited to have his voice be such a huge part of the album without something to counterbalance it.
That said, though, Honey Moon is the kind of record you can slip on at your parents’ house and they’ll think it’s one of their old records (this could be useful the next time they wanna bust out their Gordon Lightfoot or Jimmy Buffet albums). And, if that works, you can tell them that The Handsome Family is an indie band and that all indie bands sound like this. Then put on a Hold Steady album and see what they do.