When Chicago guitarist Brett Sparks decided to get a band together, he avoided all the hassle of finding and auditioning musicians by recruiting his wife Rennie and best friend Mike Werner and teaching them to play, respectively, bass and drums. Thus was born the Handsome Family. With Brett writing the music and Rennie contributing lyrics, the trio plays a noisy, urbanized version of country that resembles the rural side of the Mekons. Odessa finds the trio just getting ahold of its sound, at times clumsily, as ideas outstrip ability. Songs on Odessa deal with the problems of city living (“Moving Furniture Around”), modern relationships (the wittily titled “She Awoke With a Jerk,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge”) and lost innocence (“Pony”). The Sparks’ voices meld together in slightly off-key harmonies that are never less than affecting. If Odessa has a fault, it’s lyrics that are sometimes too coyly knowing, tossing off pop cultural references to no real effect. But even on the worst offender (“Gorilla”), the Handsome Family’s music retains its charm.
Milk and Scissors expands the trio’s lyrical grasp, offering such fables as “The King Who Wouldn’t Smile,” “Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear” and “Emily Shore 1819-1839.”