Monday, October 20, 2008

Ugly Casanova. Sharpen Your Teeth (Sub Pop, 2002)

"Opened up a can of loud mouth malted/ High-fives in your eyes/ Push the gas and now I'm kissin' good-byes/ Looking for a purpose/ How the hell'd we get here?"

Ugly Casanova is a side project from Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, and an interesting entry into the Modest Mouse pantheon. Like many side projects, it stands simultaneously as a sort of stylistic curio and road map, a forum for the artist to get something off his chest, maybe work out some demons, and even test the waters in a desired but uncertain direction.

In this case, Sharpen Your Teeth sounds ultimately like a Modest Mouse record -- Isaac Brock is a pretty singular talent with a broken-mold voice and vision, so it'd be pretty hard for him to make it sound otherwise -- but like a weird Modest Mouse record, even by Modest Mouse standards of weirdness. There's none of the unhinged guitar heroics and displays of rhythmic virtuosity that marked early Modest Mouse records like The Lonesome Crowded West and Building Nothing Out of Something. It's a got a far more rustic, casual, acoustic vibe, with lots of fiddles and banjos, all of which are nicely contradicted by the unsteady electronic touches scattered throughout.

Also, there's a bit of a backstory. Initially, Brock claimed that Ugly Casanova was the nom-de-rock of a Mr. Edgar Graham, a slightly unstable man who first approached Brock at a Modest Mouse concert in 1998 and, after establishing a shaky familiarity with the band, started sharing some of his songs, many of which eventually developed into Sharpen Your Teeth. Just as suddenly as he appeared, the story goes, Graham vanished, never to be heard from again, his songs his only remaining legacy. Spoooooky.

It's a crock, of course. Isaac Brock wrote all of these songs, and was using Ugly Casanova as a production company title as early as 1996. Whatevs. It doesn't really matter. Though it's always interesting when an artist goes through the trouble of concocting and disseminating a backstory like that in an effort to distance himself from the work. Why put yourself through the hassle? Is it to downplay your involvement in the project, or to hype the project through the use of a well-placed ghost story? Both at the same time? Who knows?

Like I said, it doesn't really matter. Sharpen Your Teeth, while not as immediately impressive as the best Modest Mouse, is an exceedingly solid LP, with a downbeat, haunted drift and some highly memorable melodies. Plus, Ugly Casanova features the pinch-hitting of some indierock landed gentry: Tim Rutili (Red Red Meat, Califone), Pall Jenkins (The Black Heart Procession), and Brian Deck (also of Red Red Meat and more recently an in-demand producer. Deck handled Modest Mouse's breakthrough The Moon and Antarctica). Given the Califone and Black Heart Procession personnel, it's no wonder this record has a kinda windswept desperation blowing through it, replacing Brock's usual wild-eyed fervor with a more sober, hungover sound.

The backwards-looped guitars of "Barnacles" christens the album, bleeding into a supple mid-tempo blues lurch fitted with some pleasantly thorny solos and damaged genius lines like, "I don't know me and you don't know you/ So we fit so good together 'cause I knew you like I knew myself," and, "Saw it as satellite, constant unblinking as/ Buried in the bottom of a bottom of a brackish lake." "Parasites" is a rousing ballad to the decomposition process bolstered by a sickly cheerful horn loop, a staggering electro beat, and piercing guitar plucks. "We're all a punchline to a joke that they won't let us in on," Brock demures. "And all your thoughts, they rot."

"Hotcha Girls" is the gem of the album, a gorgeous acoustic piece that fills the room with the smell of burning leaves and autumn rains, a pensive and exquisitely morose reflection on the passing of time and aging. "Suck it up, take a ride and take a walk/ And don't you know that old folks' homes smell so much like my own," Brock murmurs over a loping kick-snare beat and a gently rolling, finger-picked chord progression. The end result is one of Brock's most starkly pretty tunes.

"Cat Faces" is a simply strummed rambler with a winning melody that sounds like Brock wrote it in about five minutes, and it still manages to stick in your head long after the album ends. "Ice on the Sheets" points the way to the more Tom Waits-influenced tracks Modest Mouse would dabble in on Good News for People Who Like Bad News, as Brock tries on his high-pitched hexed hobo persona in the interest of a creepily catchy electronic fever dream. It's compelling if not entirely pleasant. "Smoke Like Ribbons" is probably the most cheerful song on the LP, and sounds like a nice Band outtake, with a breezy front-porch feel and offhand charm. "Singing 'Lawty lawty loved him'/ Stark don't give a flat fuck," Brock mumbles good-humoredly behind a staccato fiddle line and what sounds like a musical saw.

"Things I Don't Remember" stands out on Sharpen Your Teeth as the LP's closest thing to a party jam. It's got an insistently pounding drum line, martial march vocal sections, and delightfully nonsensical lyrics. It's the one track on the album where everyone seems to be in a genuinely good mood, and sheds the rest of the collection's melancholy for a hallucinatory joy. "So Long for the Holidays" closes out the album with a sweet drone and subdued John Bonham drums, lulling the listener into a pleasantly narcotized fugue state, a nice note to end on.

Ugly Casanova gets unjustly overlooked, I think. And that's probably just the nature of the side project. That's why it's called a side project. But don't overlook this album. It's got a disquieting grace that you don't want to miss.