When the branches tap against the window and the house creaks in the wind, this album will keep you company and assure you that it’s all OK.
You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you dies each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason. — Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
It’s autumn in Chicago. It’s my favorite time of the year. It somewhat depresses me. But I am most comfortable in that feeling; that warm, insular comfort of slight mental darkness. Not blackness, mind you. But the gray overcast that accompanies melancholy.
I am also nostalgic by nature. And so, I settle into autumn and look back fondly on a summer that was too hot, too long, and too troubling with world events to truly deserve to be considered a holiday. Oddly, it was this summer that I came across an album so utterly autumnal…
Ugly Casanova. It’s a strange name and there’s a strange story attached to the whole project. The official line is that a character named Edgar Graham (aka Ugly Casanova) first appeared at a Modest Mouse show in Denver around 1998. Casanova shared some songs with the band and according to Sub Pop’s hype machine, “by the time he finished each impromptu performance, his face held a look of shame and anger that more often than not, foreshadowed a retreat into himself.” Duly impressed with the songs, the band implored Casanova to hand over some rough demos they could then shop around for him to be released as singles. And like a Seattle-set noir film, Casanova disappeared into the fog, never to be heard from again.
Fast forward to August 2001. Tim Rutili, founder of Red Red Meat and Califone, gets a call from Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock to come out to Brock’s Portland, Oregon home to record some songs. Rutili had known Brock for some time, but on a fairly casual basis.
“We did some shows with Modest Mouse when we were in Red Red Meat a long time ago,” said Rutili. “And we did our first Califone tour opening up for them. They made the Moon and Antarctica here at our studio with Brian [Deck].”
Brock had enlisted Rutili to help flesh out the songs of Ugly Casanova. He had scraps of the songs together and looked to some friends to help assemble a collection worthy of the mysterious Edgar Graham’s pseudonym.
“I heard little chunks of it here and there from Isaac. Acoustic demos. Pieces of songs…” said Rutili, who was actually brought on as a bit of a hired gun, a role he found comfortable.
“I love adding to someone else’s music as much as I love doing my own. They both balance themselves out. There’s a beautiful trust between people that happens during this process when it’s working. You forget yourself.”
And this project turned out to be a particularly fruitful collaboration with a roomful of songwriters holed up in the Pacific Northwest with a box of demos and creative energy. They set about working on the album sitting around a kitchen table.
“John Orth (of Holopaw) spent a lot of time alone writing words. I spent about an hour writing words during dinner. I didn’t see Isaac write anything down. He just spits it out. I don’t think he ever writes anything down. It’s pretty amazing to watch. He nails it right off the top of his head quite often.”
The songs of Califone tend to appeal to my depressing side. There’s a dark ambiguity in the words and the notes that settle in nicely between the folds of my brain. Rutili has a knack for conjuring strange moods in music, similar to the more rustic recordings of Tom Waits. To call him in on a project is to ask for gravity and Rutili was in a particularly morose space when he departed Chicago for Portland last August to record with Brock and Co.
Rutili’s grandmother had just passed away. He was still wearing the brown suit (the only one he owns) from the funeral when he landed in Portland.
“I was there for 3 or 4 days. I wore my suit and tie the whole time. Slept in it too.”
Brock, Deck and Orth picked Rutili up at the airport and the four drove through the night to Brock’s home. Upon arrival, they cooked up food, shot the shit, and tossed around song ideas. Despite having just attended a funeral, Rutili said that he didn’t feel any sense of sadness or despair.
“We talked about the funeral a little bit on the van ride from the airport to the house but the conversation was more surreal than sad.” Rutili remembered “I remember having a strong feeling of purpose after my grandmother’s death, like I should open things up in all aspects of my life, enjoy my time and make the most of whatever situation I was in, good or bad. There was a sort of acceptance of death that really kicked in for me at that time.”
And this was no sad-sack affair. The album itself is not dramatic or weepy. This isn’t the Cure we’re talking about. In fact, some songs are downright bouncy and fun. But it does have a creeping mood of mortality that hangs on the melodies and touches the lyrics. Sometimes the music takes on an eerie innocence like when children talk about death.
Rutili puts it this way, “There are a lot of blurry memories from childhood and that imagery is all over the music. It’s not a deliberate thing but it always finds it’s way in.”
One song in particular, “Diamonds on the Face of Evil,” touches upon the joyful absurdity of children’s perception of music and their unashamed creativity. The song has a nonsensical chorus of howling the words “She Shaw She Shaw” between rickety verses like some twisted Appalachian call and response.
“I remember laughing when I first heard it and asking what all that shawshawshawshaw business was about,” said Rutili. “Isaac told me that when he was a kid his mom had all these Lithuanian records and he used to play them all the time. He couldn’t understand the words but they were the only music that was around and he loved to sing along. He’d just sing shawshawshaw with the records. I thought that was perfect. Things like that always leak in.”
There’s also an innocent morbidity to the instrumentation on some of the tracks. That song in particular has a percussion track that sounds more like bones on concrete than anything else and descriptions like that always lead back to Tom Waits.
“Bone Machine and Raindogs are both big influences on me but certainly not the first place I ever heard found object percussion,” said Brian Deck, who supplied most of the percussion on the project. References to those two albums pop up in nearly every review of Sharpen Your Teeth, but Deck doesn’t mind…much.
“Waits is the main pop culture touchstone for journalists trying to talk about clanky wood and metal.” Deck then adds, “It is a pet peeve of mine that journalists almost universally discuss one hunk of music in terms of other hunks of music but I don’t lose sleep over it.”
The way Deck sees it, there are defined roles in the music industry and he’s perfectly content with his.
“Having a vocabulary to talk about music is the job of people who make it, regurgitating one sheets and filling copy space that couldn’t be sold to advertisers is the job of the music press.”
Well said, but I’m going to do it anyways: Add one part Modest Mouse, two parts Califone, a smidge of Beck’s One Foot in the Grave and maybe a pinch of Bone Machine-era Tom Waits and you have the recipe for Sharpen Your Teeth. It’s an immediately endearing album with rich lyrical imagery and quirky instrumentation.
Tracks like “Spilled Milk Factory” cruise closest to the songs on Califone’s critically acclaimed Roomsound from last year while “Pacifico,” “Diamonds on the Face of Evil” and “Cat Faces” ring true of Brock’s day job in Modest Mouse. But there’s a flow and continuity in the songs that moves the album along and there’s no sense of drastic stylistic changes that can often derail a collaborative album with more than one chief songwriter.
But what about Edgar Graham? The Ugly Casanova? The man who sparked it all with his awkward backstage performance? Where is he now that the album is finished and making the rounds of the better college radio stations? The shadowy Edgar Graham may only exist as a literary device, everyone’s mum on the subject.
“I took the UC blood oath of secrecy when I signed up. You’ll have to consult the Sub Pop oracle on that subject,” replied Deck when asked about Graham. Rutili couldn’t shed much more light, only answering, “I bet he’s fake. I don’t know.”
From the rustic pop of “Barnacles” to the wispy shades of “Hotcha Girls” and the understated, anthem “So Long to the Holidays” Sharpen Your Teeth is an album with depth and warmth. When the autumn winds pick up speed and the waves of Lake Michigan freeze in place, I’ll be home listening to this album and howling She Shaw She Shaw until the sun rises over a frozen city and I have to go back to work.