4 May 2009

Ugly Casanova

Sharpen Your Teeth
Sub Pop, 2002

A few years before Modest Mouse released their fourth album, the moody and wonderful Good News For People Who Love Bad News, Isaac Brock indulged in a side project. He recruited Pall Jenkins from Black Heart Procession, a band who sound exactly like their name would have you believe – all slow, thumping marching beat drums and melodrama – a singer from another indie band, a drummer with a fondness for using found objects and, finally, a fifth musician called Tim Rutilli, who was known for the strangeness and gravity of his work. The others drove to pick Rutilli up at the airport in the middle of the night, where he had flown straight from his grandmother's funeral wearing a brown suit that he stayed in for the next four days.

The ramshackle band was christened Ugly Casanova. Because the story of their getting together wasn't weird enough, Brock invented a character called Edgar Graham who, so the story went, had broken through a backstage window after a Modest Mouse gig to introduce himself to the band and play them his music. He had then started opening for them on tour, playing a few rough songs before stumbling off stage filled with anger and shame. After the tour ended Graham disappeared, leaving behind a collection of demo tapes and scribbled notes that, Brock later decided, should be fleshed out by him and his friends "until such time as Graham resurfaces to take credit for his work and add a bit more to whatever understanding of him still exists".

The result – of whichever story you want to believe – is a sort of American Gothic mix of pop songs built from bizarre scrapes and clangs and rhythms that sounds like they were whistled out on the top of a moonshine jug. The vocals are the most striking – they move between squeals and shrieks and wails. Then, when you're least expecting it, a song will come where Brock gives up all pretence and sings in a plaintive voice that sounds like a friend retelling a sad memory. He is almost completely naked on 'Smoke Like Ribbons', among the whistling and the twangs of the banjo and the fiddle: "Songs were pulled like ribbons from the window of the car/ Lost along the shoulder of the highway..."

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