Ugly Casanova - Sharpen Your Teeth
Record Label: Sup Pop Records
Release Date: May 21, 2002
"The first time any one seemed to care that Edgar Graham existed was in the summer of 1998, when he impressed himself upon the members of Modest Mouse while backstage at a Denver show. Streaming with blood from the window he had recently broken his way through, Graham stormed up to the band and then jabbing his thumb at the emptiness behind his left shoulder as if to indicate someone else, or the lack thereof, he introduced himself as Ugly Casanova. He displayed a gentle, if not slightly unnerving, mental instability that endeared them to him and caused them to adopt him in a way only possible of a band with a long tour ahead of them."
The legend (found at Sup Pop Records website), goes on to relate how Ugly Casanova would play before the opening bands in front of a small crowd and then retreat in shame. After recording some songs for Sup Pop Records he disappeared, leaving nothing but a paper covered with his ramblings, which would inspire Modest Mouse to create The Moon and Antarctica. Years later, he sent a package of tapes to Sup Pop Records, which they compiled to make the album Sharpen Your Teeth.
Fact or fiction? Well, in all likelihood it's the latter, but it's an enjoyable tale nonetheless, and it helps shape the music's identity more. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
Ugly Casanova was made up of Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, Tim Rutili of Red Red Meat and Califone, Pall Jenkins of The Black Heart Procession, John Orth of Holopaw, and Brian Deck of Red Red Meat. Not to take anything away from the other gentleman, but Ugly Casanova comes off as Isaac Brock's baby, as he is the the most involved, and is present on every track. This does not mean this is Modest Mouse Lite, however. One needs only to look at the song "Smoke Like Ribbons" to see that, as this song has a distinctly country/folk feel to it.
The songs here are much simpler and more stripped down. The beats are very basic, and sometimes even repetitive. The album is also very simple instrumentally, as there is often simply a guitar or bass accompanying. This leaves the vocals and lyrics as the focus.
This is largely a good thing. The album has many excellent moments, and these come largely on the more toned down efforts that feature the lyrical interplay of Brock's distinct voice and the more melodic voice of John Orth. A great example of this is the ballad "Hotcha Girls," where Orth and Brock trade lines for a while before Brock takes the lead. With the slow pace and soft vocals, this song is one of the highlights of the album. Brock and Orth join voices again a few tracks later on "Cat Faces," which manages to surpasse "Hotcha Girls" in emotional punch. It is the most beautiful song on the album and shows Ugly Casanova at their best.
"Parasites" and "Barnacles" are two of the more upbeat tracks on the album, at least terms of pace and volume. "Parasites" is one of the songs that does have a very Modest Mouse-like feel, with Brock spouting some existentialist lyrics over a horn, bass, and keys. It's a song that's fun even though it's dark. "Barnacles," as the opener, does a great job of grabbing your interest with only some simple drums and keys. It also features some of the best lyrics on the album. One example:
"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.
We clung on like barnacles on a boat,
even though the ship sinks you know you can't let go."
This is just one example of the darker tone that Brock always brings to his lyrics. From the yelps on "Spilled Milk Factory" about sexual encounters to the bluesy laments about getting screwed over on "Pacifico," he rarely sounds positive. Fortunately for fans, that's also when he's at his best. The lyrics on this album are, almost without exception, incredible.
This album does have some problems, though. Like Edgar Graham, it's something of a tortured genius. In between the brilliant moments, there are moments where the album seems to lose it's focus. "Diamonds on the Face of Evil" and "Ice on the Sheets," are far too repetitive as Brock shouts in his odd way the same lines over and over. The latter is especially bothersome because of it's length (well over six minutes). A solid two minutes shorter and it's a great track. Those extra two minutes leave you reaching for the skip button.
Then there is the incredibly bizarre "Things I Don't Remember." From the references to a "dressed up alligator" and "disco dancing neighbors," to the ridiculous stretch where everything drops out while Brock breathlessly chants while random sounds play over and over, this song is an enigma. I love the beat and the feel to this song, but it's almost killed by that abrupt interlude.
Overall, the album takes after its namesake. Like Edgar Graham, a.k.a. Ugly Casanova, this album has moments of brilliance interspersed with unexplainable lapses into bizarreness and repetition. The brilliance, however, far outweighs anything else. Tracks like "Barnacles," "Parasites," "Hotcha Girls," and "Cat Faces" push this album to the next level, and make Sharpen Your Teeth an essential for any Isaac Brock fan.