Album Review: Ugly Casanova, “Sharpen Your Teeth” (2002)

I’m not really a Modest Mouse fan.  My ex-boyfriend was probably the biggest fan of them I have ever met; he owns all of their CDs, every live release and bootleg thing he can get his hands on, quotes them on his Twitter like it’s scripture, basically worships the ground lead singer, Isaac Brock, walks on.  When we began dating, I tried really hard to get into them even a little, but it didn’t really work.  Of course, I like a few of their songs, but I don’t think they’re the best thing since sliced bread or anything like he does.  To me, they’re just alright.

So, he tried another approach and introduced me to Brock’s secret side project- Ugly Casanova.  It’s a “secret” because Brock made up a story surrounding the band when their debut album, Sharpen Your Teeth, was first released- saying that in 1998, a man named Edgar Graham met Brock backstage at a Modest Mouse concert and together Brock and Graham created Ugly Casanova.  Graham mysteriously disappeared after they began recording songs, and so in an effort to keep Graham’s musical legacy alive, Brock finished recording and released the songs himself.

Brock later admitted that all of this was a lie- Edgar Graham was a fictional alter-ego of sorts that he created to escape having to do interviews. Er…right.  All I have to say is that the music business sure is a hotbed for eccentric personalities.

At any rate, the result is Sharpen Your Teeth, Ugly Casanova’s only album.  If I’m being terribly honest here, all of the songs on the album sound just like Modest Mouse songs, right down from the instruments used, Brock’s whiny vocals, and the lyrics.  That’s not really a band thing, and either way, I definitely enjoyed the album and listened to a lot more than I did any of the Modest Mouse albums I have, but it seems like if Brock was trying to stretch his wings creatively, he didn’t stretch them very far.

 Barnacles starts off the album, and is a quirky little tune, filled with lots of guitar and scratching effects.   I suppose one of the main things that has always turned me off from Modest Mouse is Brock’s vocal stylings- as I said earlier, he almost seems to whine his way through songs more than sing.  It’s not incredibly off-putting, but Brock is by no means a good vocalist.  Luckily, more of the attention is put on the melody and lyrics of the songs on the album.  One thing I have to give Brock credit for is writing incredibly quotable lyrics.  The opening verse is one I always get stuck in my head (“I don’t need to see/I don’t see how you see out of your window/I don’t need to see, I’ll paint mine black”) and the chorus (“We clung on like barnacles on a boat/Even though the ship sinks you know you can’t let go”), which was one I often referred to (strangely enough) when things ended with my Modest Mouse fan ex.

Spilt Milk Factory is a loud song, that’s a bit too obnoxious at times.  It opens with a warped harmonica sound, and from there on, keeps up a country sort of vibe, paired with loud cymbals and unruly singing during the chorus.  The song is somewhat fun to listen to during a drive or something, but it’s not exactly the thing you want to listen to if you’ve already got a headache.  Parasites fares much better- the song is another upbeat one, and a bit nonsensical, but in a fun, jovial way.  Again, Brock has a knack for writing memorable one-liners, and this song is full of them (“We’re all a punchline to a joke that they won’t let  us in on/And all your thoughts, they rot.”)

The tempo gets taken down a notch with the album’s first truly stand-out track (besides the opener), Hotcha Girls.  Don’t ask me what a “hotcha” girl is, because even after listening to this song several times in the past year, I still don’t know.  Anyway, it’s once again the lyrics that paint a nice portrait in this song (“Smells like autumn, smells like leaves/You don’t know that you’ll rust and not belong so much/And then get left alone”) and even Brock’s singing isn’t half bad with the slowed down acoustic tune.  Brock’s vocals are split into two different tracks, therefore having him harmonize with himself, but the result is actually fairly nice to listen to.  The song has always been one of my favorites on the album, for the quiet melody and melancholy lyrics.  

Cat Faces is a similar song, again composed of mostly only acoustic guitars and Brock’s vocals.  The opening lines is one of my favorite lyrics, ever (“My heart’s stopped pumping, but my blood is still alive”) and the song is filled with nice little contradictory lines that I just love (“My eyes wake up, but my brain is sleeping fine…/You blame me and I’ll blame you, and we’re both right…”).  The harmonies are again spot on in this song, with most of the track being sung in a round.   Musically, the song is just a treat to listen to- the acoustic guitar and Brock’s harmonies are lovely, and the lyrics are some of my favorites.  The song is probably the best on the album, and my personal favorite as well.

And sadly, the rest of the album is pretty ordinary.  A few of the songs are just complete wastes of space.  (No Song) is just that- no song…it’s just a thirty second long interlude of voices echoing, and I have no clue why they couldn’t have just added it to the end of a song instead of having it as its own track.  Beesting is a somewhat likeable song just because of the line, “kiss me just like a beesting”, but that’s basically the entirety of the :49 track.  Plus, Brock sort of wails the line over and over again, and it’s so discordant that I could understand if some people skip the track altogether.

Meanwhile songs like Diamonds On The Face Of Evil and Ice On The Sheets lack any real character.  The first of the two is a dull sounding track that consists of the same lyrics being sung over again (“She forgot to lay the eggs”) for a few minutes before segueing into more pointless lyrics (“Diamonds in the horses stable/The dancers didn’t have their feet/On the families in the graveyard/Diggin’ diamonds on the face of evil.”).  Ice On The Sheets is an irritating song to listen to because the vocals in the song are all electric sounding and the lyrics are nearly undecipherable.  Brock continues to scream his way through the track, however, and the combination of the grating vocals and bland melody make me skip this one every time.

Perhaps the last decent song on the album is Pacifico.  Once again, the lyrics are fantastic (“They said they’d give me everything/Here’s the part that made me laugh/They didn’t give me anything/And then they took half of that/So sharpen your teeth or lay flat”), and Brock’s takes on a sort of hard-edged attitude while singing, which works well.  Every time I order the beer of the same name, I sing this song.  I usually get weird looks for doing so, but that’s okay- it makes me smile.

And from there on out, the album completely fizzles.  Smoke Like Ribbons is another country western-esque type song, but is so incredibly bland that I can’t stand listening to it.  Things I Don’t Rememberis a bit peppier, but is still a boring song and while Brock sings “how the hell did we get here?” during the verses, I have to ask myself the same question about this point of the album.  The album ends withSo Long To The Holidays, an uninspired, sluggish song (it goes on for nearly 6 minutes!).  The track goes absolutely nowhere and is a completely lackluster end to the album. 

Perhaps you do have to be a Modest Mouse fan to appreciate Ugly Casanova.  I wouldn’t really know.  For the most part, Sharpen Your Teeth, is a bit of a disappointment.  Even though I do remember listening to it a lot last fall, it was really only to the few standout tracks: Barnacles, Cat Faces, Hotcha Girls, Pacifico and Parasites.  The rest of the album is certainly a let down.

Rating: 3_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. Barnacles
2. Spilled Milk Factory
3. Parasites
4. Hotcha Girls
5. No Song
6. Diamonds on the Face of Evil
7. Cat Faces
8. Ice on the Sheets
9. Beesting
10. Pacifico
11. Smoke Like Ribbons
12. Things I Don’t Remember
13. So Long to the Holdays

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_aDAKlaEOw]
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