The Handsome Family at Bush Hall, W12

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Going to a Handsome Family show was a bit like watching one of those vintage oddball American sitcoms. Brett and Rennie Sparks were the cranky couple at the heart of the action, bickering with easy familiarity. “Don’t mind us, we’ve been married 20 years,” Rennie told the audience. “Twenty-one years,” Brett corrected her.

The bespectacled alt.country duo live “in the desert” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a place where the mysterious rites of so-called American Gothic culture apparently flourish. Throughout a long set they invariably introduced the songs with a brief explanation of their provenance, but never the actual title. There were numbers inspired by encounters with venomous snakes and weird insects, suicide jumpers at the Golden Gate Bridge, bottomless holes, the end of the world, a Norwegian dirigible disaster, a creepy barber-shop experience, an ugly cat slurping on an empty milk carton and so forth, their lyrics all written by Rennie.

She played bass, banjo and melodica, while Brett played electric guitar and sang the lead parts on most of the songs in a deep, mordant post-Johnny Cash drawl. Also included in the action were the drummer Jason Toth and Stephen Dorocke on electric guitar and fiddle.

The songs, several in waltz time, varied in pace from slow to dead slow. Linger, Let Me Linger from their current album, Honey Moon, was a melancholy love song with a spectacularly odd chord sequence and shambolic solo from Brett. Far From Any Road incorporated a lugubrious description of the poisonous plants to be found in their back yard.

While admiring the sense of theatre, there was something a little mannered about the performance as a whole, as if we were all part of a big in-joke, albeit a good one. And a little more variation in the mournful tone of the music would have been welcome. An encore of So Much Wine lifted the spirits, even if it was a song about the mother of all Christmas hangovers.

– David Sinclair