Brett and Rennie Sparks. Photo by Jesse Littlebird Rennie Sparks made up a new word when writing “Gentleman,” a quirky period-piece song off the Handsome Family’s latest album, Unseen. “From tempered glass I built the apparatus to alight the presence of phantasmus.” “It’s a Latinate version of phantasm,” she explains. “If you created a scientific order of phantasms, it would be a phantasmus.” “I don’t believe that’s a word in any language,” says Brett Sparks, her husband as well as the band’s vocalist and arranger. “It should be a word,” she insists. This is the way the duo work. Rennie drafts lyrics full of vivid and visceral imagery, fantastical scenes and oddball characters, while Brett sets them to music that is equally imaginative and sings them in a low, grainy, perfectly deadpan baritone. For 20 years now they’ve been traipsing the line between the real and the surreal, the everyday and the enigmatic, occasionally categorized as “alt-country” but more accurately described as true American originals. Unseen, the couple’s eleventh album, conjures a world where a word like phantasmus is not only a logical addition to the lexicon but nothing really out of the ordinary. With its barrage of harpsichords and a chord progression that’s more Bach than Buck Owens, “Gentlemen” is an inquiry into the supernatural, using William Crookes, a 19th-century scientist and spiritualist, to pinpoint the intersection between our world and some other, as-yet-unknown realm. Like all of their songs, it’s imaginative and eccentric, even a bit funny, but also deadly serious: Rene Magritte by way of Grant... Sign In to Keep Reading
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