Handsome Family & Junia May and the Hymns @ El Cid - Review


It was about ten o'clock on an unusually cold Los Angeles winter night and the thin crowd was beginning to fill out the El Cid, a Spanish tavern in Silverlake.

Handsome Family goes instrumental

Slumped in a booth surrounded by a few hours' worth of drinks, a middle-aged couple began to notice the small crowds of people filing into the room. "Someone playing?" the man in the booth asked the woman. "I'll find out" she responded, and did. "They are called the Handsome Family" was the reply. "They are a husband and wife team. And they are sarcastic. Kind of."

The husband and wife team are Brett and Rennie Sparks. Brett writes the music. Rennie writes the lyrics. He has a deep, baritone voice that defies comparison to any singer in your record collection and can best be summed up by hitting the last key on the left hand side of your piano. She has a pen that has been dipped in the Americana Gothic ink well of Carson McCullers, mixed with the fatalistic styling of Dorothy Parker.

The Fam - Brett with Guitar, Rennie on Banjoe

Together, they create haunting, mournful songs set in parking lots and airport bathrooms that somehow manage to evoke mystery, awe, beauty and, surprisingly, dark, twisted humor. (For a prime example, check out "Arlene" from the Odessa album a sneakingly moving song sung from the perspective of a rapist). It is this juxtaposition of Rennie's dark, foreboding subject matter and Brett's ingenuously sincere music that opens the gates to such descriptions as "sarcastic. Kind of." Yet as unique as the Handsome Family are, they also, sadly, are rather formulaic. Their songs are mostly mid-tempo and, thus, often sound alike. And while they have written some outright masterpieces ("No One Fell Asleep Alone," "Snow White Dinner" "Far From Any Road" etc.) many of the songs fall flat, the effect of which is that a Handsome Family album demands diligent use of your track button finger. Of their seven full-length studio albums, only 2001's brilliant "Twilight"is the exception, and there is no justification for not owning it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their newest effort, "Last Days of Wonder" which, of all their albums, is the one most likely to give you carpel tunnel syndrome.

Brett's throne and four beer bottles awaiting his arrival

And so I ventured out into the forty degree cold (what is taking global warming so long?) to the El Cid to see the Handsome Family. If you are unfamiliar with the venue, get familiar with it. Because it is one of the nicest this city has to offer. Built in 1895 by D. W. Griffith, it was used to screen the cinematic white power classic "Birth of a Nation."

In the 50's, it was turned into a theater space called "The Cabaret Concert Theater," was linked to Marlon Brando, and became a hang out for many stars. In 61' it was changed into an authentic looking 16th century Spanish-style tavern, and so it remains to this day, with magnificent wood beam ceiling, lush gardens and patios, and exquisite details. The stage and room that house it are small, but intimate, and you can catch everything from Flamenco to belly dancing to underground comedy and, if you were there the last two nights, such musical acts as the Handsome Family.

I arrived a little before ten, having been told the Handsome Family would take the stage around then. But when the curtain came up, the audience was not greeted by the familiar husband wife duo. Instead, standing before us was a wildly disparate group of musicians.

A motley crew with a keenly tuned sound

The lead singer had pigtails and cowboy boots. The fiddler (yes, I said fiddler) had a clean-shaven head. The Dobro player wore a fedora. The bassist was pure echo park hipster. When they introduced themselves as "Junia May and the Hymns" no one knew what to expect.

A cold night with country tunes

Turns out, what we should have been expecting was a set by one of the most exciting new bands in some time. Despite their wildly different aesthetic, Junia May and the Hymns are a remarkable musical collective. They play country music with a taste of Americana that captivates you from the first chord. (Check out Myspace.com/juniamayandthehymns and listen to "Jealous") The lead singer, Junia Hale, has a perfect voice for the genre, finely tuned to convey equal amounts vulnerability and power that are the hallmark of all great country vocalists.

Junia Hale - A new voice in town

Kenny Klein, the fiddler, is a sinfully talented musician, and he brings his many years of fiddling experience with him. To watch him work a fiddle is to realize that this instrument's reputation as the poor man's violin is ill earned.

The obscenely talented Kenny Klein with his fiddle

I am not sure there is an instrument that Bryan Dobbs (Dobro/Banjo/Guitar/Mandolin etc) can't or didn't play on the other side of the stage, and Becky Lou Gordon is a commanding presence on bass. The band is but a few months old and has only a hand full of songs. But if the way they played last night is any indication, both those statements will be false soon enough. They are scheduled to play the El Cid again on Dec 12. This is your chance to get in on the ground floor. You may not get another.

Becky Gordon working the bass and Bryan Dobbs on the Dobro

At about 11:30 the Handsome Family took the stage and almost immediately Brett and Rennie began to banter. If you did not know they were married, you needed no more then five minutes of Handsome Family interaction to be caught up:

Rennie: What the hell are you doing with that thing [Drum Machine]? We don't need it!
Brett: Just getting prepared.
Rennie: Stop getting distracted by your toys!

Rennie, who writes all the lyrics, showing off her other skills

Their banter is an often-cited staple of their shows and Rennie can be quite funny. But after about twenty minutes, it became more of a distraction then an addition. And not just for the audience. The Handsome Family was having an off night. They were missing notes, jumping cues, and generally seemed tense and uncomfortable. After messing up on "Beautiful William," Brett chose to continue, but Rennie wanted to go back to where they had erred. They argued about it while still playing, until Rennie prevailed and they backtracked.

Brett's baritone filled the small venue

The show did get better as the hour got later and the beer bottles on stage got emptier. The banter stopped, the songs started to flow more freely, and the Handsome Family managed to reach their great potential on such songs as "So Much Wine," "Arlene" and "Broken Wings."

And as the show came to a close at 12:30, Rennie stepped into the crowd, sat down at one of the booths, and waited as fans came up to greet her and ask her questions. And they did. Casually, comfortably, they sat beside her, chatted with her, laughed with her. Because, for all the Handsome Family's faults, this is not a band you would ever disown.  

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