The Handsome Family kills it on HBO

The Handsome Family kills it on HBO

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Rennie and Brett (WBEZ file).
Matthew and Woody (HBO).

Almost all of the well-deserved praise showered on producer T-Bone Burnett of late has come thanks to his role in crafting the music of the Coen Brothers’ moody homage to the pre-Dylan folk scene Inside Llewyn Davis. But as impressive as that accomplishment is, even more awesome are his choices as music supervisor for True Detective, the new HBO anthology series wowing TV critics with stellar performances from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as cops chasing a serial killer through rural Louisiana in the show’s first eight-episode season.

Rather than the predictable Cajun sounds some might have picked to power this tale, Burnett has instead matched the ominous Southern gothic mood with one exquisitely well-chosen song after another spanning a wide swath of different genres and eras, from “Clear Spot” by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band to “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars)” by Nick Cave’s Grinderman, and from “Stand By Me” by the Staple Singers to “The Kingdom of Heaven” by the 13th Floor Elevators. Best of all, however, was his choice for the show’s theme song, kicking things off every Sunday night.

I recognized the dulcet tones of Brett and Rennie Sparks from the Handsome Family 10 seconds into the first episode, but I’ll confess that as much as I love their now 10-albums-rich catalog—all of it released by the under-heralded Chicago indie Carrot Top Records—I had to do some digging in the stacks to place “Far From Any Road” as a rather deep album cut from Singing Bones in 2003.

That isn’t to say it’s not perfect for the job, or that it’s not a great song—just that those twisted but lovable Sparks easily have a hundred tunes that would fit this tale of the undercurrents of evil and nihilism versus the forces of faith and humanism, and this one wouldn’t have even been in my Top 20 picks, until T-Bone brought it to my attention once again.

“The world needs bad men—we keep the other bad men from the door,” McConaughey’s philosophical sleuth said in this week’s episode. I don’t know about that, but even if they continue to prefer life in New Mexico over their old stomping grounds of Chicago (wonder why, with weather like this?), the world always has and always will need the Handsome Family.

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