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The Handsome Family

In these days of crushing uncertainty and desperate misery, the Handsome Family gives dread a decidedly cheerful twist. A married couple who sing about death and loneliness with faux-brimstone severity, this duo lends a little grandeur to what is often a very funny one-joke approach.

Singing Bones is a fine example of their tongue-in-cheek tomfoolery. Brett Sparks' sad intoning matches with wife Rennie's short-story tragedies to create a macabre mood. Of course, one shouldn't take these dire tales seriously, since the Sparks themselves don't. A spooky musical saw punctuates the deranged satire of "24-Hour Store," a first-person account of a Wal-Mart employee's madness.

Though the Sparkses have a light touch with their material, they nonetheless manage to treat their subjects seriously. The foolish narrator of "The Bottomless Hole" and the nightmare sufferer of "Sleepy" aren't cartoon buffoons -- they're just some dudes trapped in modern-day ennui. By maintaining a deadpan singing style, Brett Sparks achieves the sort of compassionate mimicry that Christopher Guest pulls off in his mockumentaries. That levity is especially necessary when the creeping death of "A Shadow Underneath" and "Far from Any Road" takes hold, as odd behavior gives way to phantasmagoria and dementia.

Though the band runs out of great narratives before it does moods, it consistently makes depression and rock-hard times seem like just one big cosmic joke. Whether the world ends in fire or in ice, these two'll have a sardonic laugh all the way to the end.

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