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Ugly Casanova - Sharpen Your Teeth

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Artist: Ugly Casanova

Album: Sharpen Your Teeth

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: May. 6, 2002

“He lived in a single, large room that he had rented in 1930. The room was filled from floor to ceiling with the debris of his scavenging. He would take long walks in order to gather his amazing collections, and at great distances from home he could be seen poling through garbage with his cane, looking for his treasures. Crucifixes, broken toys, old magazines, scores of used eyeglasses repaired with tape, dozens of empty bottles of Pepto Bismol, hundreds of balls of twine that he made by tying small pieces together; the list was endless.” - Nathan Lerner

This is a description of Henry Darger, a man who lived alone all his life in Chicago, working as a janitor in a local hospital. Upon his death it was discovered that along with his various collected “treasures”, he also had in his possession a 19,000 page single-spaced manuscript entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What Is Known as The Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Several hundred remarkable drawings and watercolors were found along with the manuscript, detailing the battles and adventures had by the Vivian girls. (Check out last year's excellent Vivian Sisters album by NYC percussionistLaura Cromwell) The imagery focused on these seven young princesses, who battled to free hordes of slave children held in captive by the evil Glandelinians; many of the slave children were strange, nude hermaphroditic nymphs. This gave the unquestionably beautiful imagery a more questionable, slightly disturbing content. What is remarkable about these artworks, and what attracts people to “outsider art” in general, is the artist’s remove from the rest of society. Darger never went to school, let alone an art school, and he had only the most meagre of contacts with other human beings, yet in spite of this (or indeed, perhaps because of this), he was able to create images that are resonant, sometimes troubling, but almost always captivating. It’s intriguing to think that the twitchy person sitting next to you on the subway is actually a very talented painter, or that the obsessive hoarder down the hall is a brilliant musician, stockpiling tapes which will only be discovered upon his death.

But why does this notion hold such an enduring fascination in our culture? From Forrest Gump to Wesley Willis, people seem to love the idea that an “outsider” possesses some kind of greater truth than those who are “insiders” (read white, middle class, well-educated). People on the inside of music or art are often too well-versed in its history to produce something truly original. We’re too self-aware, too cultured to realize that there are strange, beautiful things sitting in our trashcans or printed in our old magazines, just waiting to be discovered. This isn’t necessarily true, of course, but it is a pervasive idea. Why else would people line up to see Wesley Willis, a sometimes homeless Chicago schizophrenic who writes inane songs about celebrities accompanied by cheese Casio beats? It’s not the rich texture of his music, but the strange sense of otherness that surrounds him. This difference produces music unlike anyone else, for better or for worse.

This brings us to Isaac Brock, singer and primary songwriter of the band Modest Mouse, a man who stands on a strange brink between reclusive otherness and low-level indie rock stardom. Modest Mouse have quickly become one of the most popular bands in indie rock, emerging rather rapidly from the Pacific Northwest in the early nineties, entering many people’s record collections with 1997’s The Lonesome Crowded West. Their music can be both thrilling and disturbing, offering sometimes startling musical innovation paired with twisted, dark lyrics, delivered in Brock’s bizarre, shrill voice . A song that might begin with atmospheric guitars and a gentle melody will erupt into eight or nine minutes of angular, volatile noise, with lyrics that could be about anything from a lost love to dancing with a cockroach. It was difficult to tell where Brock was coming from; he was deliberately evasive about the group’s past, and in their early years, they were rarely even photographed. This may, in part, be an effort to produce and preserve a sense of mystery about the band and its music, but Brock also seems to be a genuine oddball. Onstage, he rarely moves, but still manages to generate an almost inhuman amount of intensity and noise from both his voice and guitar. Rumors about Brock’s instability, possible drinking problem, and even an alleged rape backstage at a show (later dismissed) have only increased the sense that he’s a little strange, if not a little crazy or worse. He may not be Wesley Willis, but he’s also not Mac McCaughan or Ira Kaplan, two indie rockers you could take home to meet your mother. Brock’s music, though sometimes incredibly beautiful, seems like it comes from a much more disturbing place than most of his contemporaries. In spite of this, Modest Mouse have become popular enough to release their last album for Sony, and have managed on the surface to come off like a somewhat more eccentric Built to Spill, playing epic guitar rock for a steadily expanding audience.

So, even without the backstory in the press release for Sharpen Your Teeth, Brock’s solo debut, about a mentally unstable fan named “Edgar Graham” bequeathing the material to Brock, in a “water-damaged bundle, swathed in tape, Silly Putty and pelts of three identifiable rodents”, the music would be received with the knowledge that it is coming from a mind that functions in a very different way than most. Brock’s name for the project, “Ugly Casanova”, also attributed to Graham, is representative of the music contained within: beautiful, but with an aftertaste of confusion and self-loathing. Made in collaboration with producer Brian Deck (who also produced The Moon and Antarctica, Modest Mouse’s Sony debut), Sharpen Your Teeth often feels less like a Brock solo album than the work of a new band, as Brock collaborates with Deck and a host of new players. Left without the pummelling precision of the rhythm section of Jeremiah Green and Eric Judy in Modest Mouse, Brock has focused on a more acoustic, down-tempo sound. Freed of the rock band format, his inner Henry Darger is given full expression, with songs that sometimes consist of nothing more than off-kilter percussion and delirious yelps and rants. It’s also a pretty successful pop album, at least in places, and Brock seems to have relished the opportunity to make music in a very different manner than he does with his full-time band.

The first track, “Barnacles”, is the most Modest Mouse-like track on the album, with gently driving percussion, a descending guitar phrase, and Brock’s double-tracked vocals coming together and then sliding apart. The most immediate change here is the added layers of effects and found sounds, a favorite production trick of Deck. Next is “Spilled Milk Factory”, a strange, arrhythmic blues number that includes a warped banjo and Brock’s anguished falsetto. The album basically works its way between these two poles: Brock the talented songwriter who’s capable of truly affecting, lovely songs like “Hotcha Girls” and Brock the loony who makes screeching oddities like “Beesting”. This kind of split personality is a recurrent theme in Brock’s music: many of Modest Mouse’s songs deal with inner conflict, the gap between who you want to be and who you really are. The reality that Brock has had a truly troubling past gives this an added weight; it can also, at times, translate into an uncomfortable experience for the listener.

Despite the more disturbing elements of Brock’s music, the more conventional songs on this album are a real delight, including the acoustic guitar and cello-driven “Hotcha Girls” or the languid, dreamy closer “So Long to the Holidays”. Even some of the stranger tracks, such as “Diamonds on the Face of Evil”, with percussion that sounds like footsteps in broken glass and a repeated refrain of “Shey shaw! Shey shaw!” (a catchphrase attributed to Edgar Graham), work because they’re so strange. Although initially disconcerting or even somewhat unlistenable, the more bizarre excursions on Sharpen Your Teeth become, like Darger’s impenetrable mythologies, mysteries for the listener to solve. And while the disconnected phrases might never come to some kind of fuller, more explicit meaning, it’s the pursuit of this mystery that’s fascinating. Whatever Brock’s demons might be, he’s often capable of spinning them into gold, or at the very least a weird bit of tin that looks either like an oak tree or General de Gaulle and makes the listener wonder why he made it in the first place.

By Jason Dungan

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