THE HANDSOME FAMILY at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Saturday (July 15), 9 pm. $13.50. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
The concepts of wireless commu nication and shopping at big-box retailers might not seem like they have much to do with deer hunting and the Salem witch trials. That is, until you hear the Handsome Family's new disc, The Last Days Of Wonder (Carrot Top), and slowly everything begins to make sense.
The intriguing songs for the new album, which deal with such mysteries of modern life as shoes hanging from telephone lines and malfunctioning automatic airport sinks, came out of a desire to make some sense of weird phenomena. The project sent the Handsome Family's well-read lyricist, Rennie Sparks, back in time 300 years, while her bandmate husband Brett Sparks lounged on the couch flipping through books on the recording techniques used by the Beatles.
"I was thinking about some of the things Cotton Mather wrote in his defence of the Salem witch executions, The Wonders Of The Invisible World.
"His view was that if we believe there is a God and angels, there must also be evil in the world, which means there are witches and a devil. The other side to the coin is that if you take away the devil, there can't be a God either. That's something we're still dealing with in America today where everything is reduced to good and evil or us versus them.
"We have always needed to define ourselves by what we're against. I wish it weren't so, but I think we need an axis of evil to get out of bed each morning and go to work.
"While we were writing the songs for this album, things we experience in everyday life like shopping at Wal-Mart didn't seem all that different from hunting for deer in the woods or other 19th-century adventures."
Some of those adventures are connected with the bitter rivalry between inventors Thomas Edison and his former employee Nikola Tesla, which began with an AC-vs-DC-current war over electrical power generation and distribution.
The visionary Tesla, whose 150th birthday was celebrated on July 10, went on to dream up hundreds of other important inventions like fluorescent light bulbs and radio, for which he was only given credit posthumously.
The song Tesla's Hotel Room, inspired by the heartbreakingly sad story of Tesla's final days, stands as one of the Handsome Family's finest recorded moments.
"Edison thought his direct current would be more profitable, so he staged a series of public demonstrations electrocuting dogs, cats and even an elephant with alternating current to try to discredit Tesla and scare people into thinking AC was too dangerous for domestic use but it didn't work. Tesla instead went to the World's Fair and showed people how electricity could be a wonderful magical thing by making lightning bolts appear from his fingers, which left everyone liking Tesla a lot better.
"When he died, he was penniless and emaciated because he'd been living on a diet of saltine crackers he liked their symmetrical shape. His only friend was Mark Twain. Everyone else had deserted him.
"I like to think that in the last few days of his life he found some happiness caring for the little pigeons that came to the window of his hotel room."