album reviews

The Handsome Family
Honey Moon
Carrot Top (2009)
Marissa Nadler
Little Hells
Kemado (2009)

The Handsome Family's Rennie and Brett Sparks have a well-defined partnership: She writes the lyrics; he sings and writes the music. Even though the release of "Honey Moon," their eighth album, coincides with their 20th wedding anniversary, the tunes aren't all traditional love songs. While there are many straightforward tracks, such as the tender "June Bugs" ("I want to kiss you in green groves and echoing caves"), Rennie's nature-heavy lyrics often sound a bit twisted. Some of her comparisons are a bit unusual; her many similes on "Love Is Like" seem dark ("Love is like a black fly buzzing in the sun"), while "The Loneliness of Magnets" is nearly nonsensical ("My heart is a beating compass pointing to the pole").

Still, more often than not, Rennie's nature references conjure images of a peaceful, loving time, and Brett sings with a pointed baritone at a deliberate pace that lingers rather than plods. When Rennie's sweet voice joins Brett's heavy sigh, the balance is transcendent, as on the gentle "The Winding Corn Maze" and the outstanding "The Petrified Forest," with its heartbreaking choruses.

While the Handsome Family's pace and vocals have an intense tone, Marissa Nadler's airy voice and lightly plucked guitar make her songs sound as if they might float away on her album "Little Hells." The beautiful folk tunes are darker and sadder than they might seem on the surface: On "Ghosts & Lovers," she bemoans, "Ghosts and lovers, they will haunt you for a while." The excellent CD strikes a careful balance between her sorrowful themes and the wispy shimmer of her music.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

.: Originally published: The Washington Post: 24 April 2009
.: Items mentioned above on Honey Moon (The Handsome Family, 2009); Little Hells (Marissa Nadler, 2009).