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The Handsome Family

Country music is supposed to tell stories, and nobody tells better, creepier stories than The Handsome Family. These people are downright disturbing -- and disturbed -- which makes it more of a pleasure to hear what they have to say.

Brett Sparks writes the music, and his wife Rennie writes the lyrics. Together, they create dystopian portraits of murderous families, failed (and murderous) love affairs, despondent and hopeless humanity, and restless spirits. But these dark and dreary tales are usually packaged in a wash of purdy banjo plucks and guitar trills. Some songs are more somber, but most sound like cheerful jaunts in the park, until you listen more closely to the sinister and snickering lyrics.

Several years ago, when it seemed that music writers were coining a new term for "alternative" country every ten seconds (remember "y'allternative"?), The Handsome Family were turning out album after album of wry, intelligent, beautiful music that defied cutesy labels. They're still at it, mixing earnest country and roiling punk rock in ways that elicit both grins and grimaces.

In 2001, the duo left Chicago for the sunnier climes of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they've continued to perfect their lyrical brand of classic-meets-avant country. Their new location hasn't changed their dark worldview much, though they have incorporated a bit of the desert twang and "Americachi" influences one associates with the Southwest into their already rich sonic palette. Their beautiful sixth album, Singing Bones, was their first recorded in their new home.

These career-spanning collection of songs is selected from The Handsome Family's five Carrot Top Records releases: "Here's Hopin'" and "Arlene" from 1994's Odessa; "Drunk By Noon" and "Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear" from 1996's Milk and Scissors; "Weightless Again" and "Where the Birch Trees Lean" from 1997's Through the Trees; "So Much Wine" and "Up Falling Rock Hill" from 2000's In the Air; "24-Hour Store," "Far From Any Road," and "The Song of a Hundred Toads" all from 2003's Singing Bones.