LINCOLN SQUARE — Animals abound in the lyrics and song titles of The Handsome Family. Raccoons, skunks, bears, squirrels, turtles, snakes, bees, moths, cats, dogs and “centipedes with stingers” are just some of the critters mentioned on “Hollow,” the duo’s excellent new album on Milk & Scissors Music.
The Handsome Family, whose music has been called Gothic country, is slated to perform Friday and Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
For these shows, the husband-and-wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks will be joined onstage by guitarist Alex McMahon and drummer Jason Toth, both of whom appear on “Hollow,” The Handsome Family’s 11th studio album and their first since 2016.
The concerts will be something of a homecoming for the Sparks, who launched their band in 1993 in Chicago and were based here until 2001, when they moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
During a recent video chat from Albuquerque, it was no surprise that numerous animals figuratively crawled into a conversation with the couple. Brett, who sings lead and plays guitars and keyboards throughout the album, and Rennie, who plays banjo, provides backing vocals and writes all the lyrics, know a thing or two about furry creatures.
“Raccoons are really smart,” Brett Sparks said. “They travel in the sewers. They’ll go into a sewer grate, like on the other side of town, and they’ll come downtown until they smell what they want. Then they’ll come up. So, they’re using the sewer system as a subway.”
“And it’s pretty scary to see a raccoon coming out of a sewer,” Rennie Sparks said with a wry laugh.
When the couple lived in Wicker Park 20 years ago, they would see rats scurrying around. Nowadays, as residents of the Southwest, they must be mindful of mountain lions, bobcats and skunks — such as the ones who moved in beneath their house and inspired a song on the new album.
“Skunks seem like such optimists,” Rennie Sparks said. “They’re gonna give it a try every night. There’s usually some insects in our yard. So, every night, the skunks wake up, they come out and they usually just find food on the ground. I’d be optimistic too!”
The Handsome Family — whose songs have been covered by Andrew Bird, Phoebe Bridgers, Sally Timms and Jeff Tweedy — got a huge career boost in 2014, when their song “Far From Any Road” was used as the main title theme for the HBO crime drama “True Detective.”
That beautifully hypnotic song appears on the band’s 2003 album, “Singing Bones,” and features this memorable verse: “When the last light warms the rocks / And the rattlesnakes unfold / Mountain cats will come to drag away your bones.”
Besides animals, another recurring theme in Rennie’s lyrics is paranormal phenomena, making the upcoming Old Town concerts perfect for the Halloween season. Among the beings floating through the lyrics of “Hollow” are ghosts, phantoms, demons and skin-walkers (a type of shape-shifting witch).
“To The Oaks,” one of the album’s highlights, explores ominous, mysterious aspects of Mother Nature. Paired with a jaunty, catchy melody, Brett Sparks demonstrates the flexibility of his baritone voice as he sings, “Your shiny phone will never know / No electric eye can ever show / The flashes in the branches / The whisper in the oaks.”
The Sparks have long pursued a DIY aesthetic. Brett has become a wizard of electric keyboards and audio production, while Rennie has become a prolific writer, visual artist and video director.
The music videos for “Joseph” and “Skunks” feature footage shot in the couple’s New Mexico home, which was built about 125 years ago. The video for “The King of Everything” is a delightful animated clip that offers images of nature and medicinal capsules.
“I really like making videos, so I learned how to do it,” Rennie said. “You can learn anything on YouTube nowadays.”
Brett said, “It’s like saying, ‘I want to build a shed in my backyard.’ You kind of figure out how to do it. You know, it might not hold water in the end, but you got a shed.”
Rennie said in anticipation of the band’s visit to Chicago, she was bracing herself for all the ways the cityscape has changed.
“I’m sure driving up Milwaukee Avenue will be fascinating,” she said. “We’ll just go around in circles, pointing out all the things that are no longer there.”
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