Review Summary: While not reinventing the country wheel, it is certainly not from a lack of trying.
The originality of country music over the last decade, particularly mainstream country, is one which is questionable at best. Most artists stick with a tried and tested formula lyrically and musically in their work and this is fine but results in a genre that quickly stagnates. The Handsome Family are an alternative country band which have rose to prominence recently largely as a result of their track 'Far From Any Road' being featured as the theme song for the HBO show 'True Detective'. 'Singing Bones' is an album that showcases a band that are comfortable with their sound and while not reinventing the wheel in terms of country music, is an album that is highly enjoyable.
The album is roughly 40 minutes in length and this works to its advantage as many songs such as opener 'The Forgotten Lake' and '24-Hour Store' are songs which plod along at a steady pace but, nonetheless, keep the listener engaged. Musically the album has a sound that many listeners will find familiar. However, what is crucial to the success of 'Singing Bones' is that while the chord progressions vocalist/guitarist Brett Sparks employs are universal in country music, they contain flairs of originality such as an unexpected minor chord which serves to keep the listeners attention and adds to the often dark lyrics being sung. As I said before 'Singing Bones' is not an album which reinvents country music. The primary instrument used is the acoustic guitar. That being said, the use of the musical saw on '24-Hour Store' is one that helps capture the melancholy of the lyrics and the use of a pedal steel guitar on the opening track adds a classic country vibe to the track. Brett Sparks sings on every track on the album and his deep baritone gives a strong sense of authenticity to the lyrics he sings. Primary lyricist Rennie Sparks also duets with Brett on several songs and often the contrast between her softer voice and his harsher voice complement each other. This is particularly evident in 'Far From Any Road' which is one of the standout tracks on the album.
Rennie Sparks writing style is one which is rooted storytelling and draws extensively on dark subject matter such as murder, suicide, loss and the supernatural. The lyrics on 'Singing Bones' are refreshing to say the least. They break with the traditional formula of singing about lost love and getting drunk that has taken root in country music and when combined with the often offbeat music, offer the listener an alternate perspective on traditional Americana themes. Rennie's voice is one which has the potential to be quite haunting and hearing her take lead vocals on some songs is something that this album almost certainly could have benefited from. Despite this, the A Capella singing of 'If The World Should End In Fire' and album closer 'If The World Should End In Ice' help keep the songs engaging and relatively original as well as tying the first and second halves of the album together nicely.
The Handsome Family are not your typical country music group. They are considered alternative country for a reason and this is exemplified on 'Singing Bones'. Are they redefining country music? No. Are they offering a alternative take on a stagnating genre? Yes. Perhaps their best quality is that they are a country band that makes you think and in this musical climate, that is a rare feat.