Wilderness is charming, but exactly what we have come to expect from The Handsome Family. Existing fans will enjoy it without hailing it as a spectacular addition to the duo’s sound body of work.

There are many husband and wife duos making music – particularly folk and country music – but few are as consistent as Brett and Rennie Sparks. The couple celebrated their 20-plus years together on 2009’s Honey Moon and now return with Wilderness, in which they spin yarns relating to all sorts of fauna. Every track is named after a creature – this album has ‘Frogs’, ‘Flies’, ‘Eels’ and ‘Owls’.

Recorded at their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Wilderness very much sticks to the bluesy Americana blueprint of The Handsome Family’s previous output. Again the surreal words are the star of the show. Rennie Sparks has a way of poetically immersing you in her narrative as Brett Sparks’ inviting baritone puts a big bear-like arm around your shoulder and guides you ever deeper into the fairytale.

It’s also partly down to the attention to detail given to these unsettling stories. ‘Caterpillars’ tells the Lynchian tale of Sylvia, who was struck by lightning and subsequently cocooned in silk by the titular creatures. Her appearance is painted in vivid detail: “She wore dark-tinted spectacles, several fur-lined capes / Three pairs of velvet gloves, a veil of dotted swiss.

Elsewhere we become acquainted with “Lovely Mary Sweeney, the famous window-smasher” and Granny Green, who can speak to the birds. These characters and more are brought to life against an atmospheric backdrop of lullaby melodies played out on honky-tonk piano, pedal steel and fiddle.

3/5 stars

BY DAVID WILD

Wilderness is out now on Spunk.

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