Ugly Casanova

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.

Ugly CasanovaSharpen Your Teeth (Sub Pop)

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

Ugly CasanovaIt’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.

MP3 of “Things I Don’t Remember” available from SubPop. Check out our previous interview with Tim Rutili.

49 thoughts on “Ugly Casanova”

  1. I just want to say this is a really well written article, Derek, and it makes me want to buy a cd I definitely can’t afford. So I have mixed feelings about your persuasive abilities but I salute them nonetheless.

  2. Long live Ugly Casanova! Derek, perhaps you could use your persuasive abilities to get us a second album. That would be a dream come true.

  3. I bought the cd, finally. You know who they remind

    me of? The Sea and Cake. Something in that backward-sounding guitar and off-kilter rhythm. Do you hear any of that in there?

  4. All I have to say is that you wrote an amazing article, and the CD is worth whatever price. If you love Modest Mouse, there’s no reason not to buy Ugly Casanova.

  5. Modest Mouse is one of my favorite bands of all time…I bought Ugly Cassanova the day it was released and have been blown away at the depths that it reaches. MM fans i’ve notice generally have been mixed because the sound is not quite what you’d expect. It’s simply just flows.

    I’ve always held a great respect for Isaac as a musician, now as wonderful artist.

    Thanks for the great article.

  6. Modest is my faverite band of all time as well. Paracites is my faveriot track along with cat faces, this album is as good as lonesome crowded west. I had the chance to see Ugly Cassanova this summer and Issaic blew my mind like he always does. I saw modest a few months after and the ugly cass show was way better( I’ve seen modest 3 previous times and all were so fucking rad, this last show was kinda weak). This article is fucking rad though, also Graham was made up so epic would allow Issiac to make this album.

  7. Kristy – The album was actually produced by the same guy who did The Sea and Cake, and yeah, I hear some of the similarities.

    Derek – Good article, although I thought the participation Paul Jenkins of Black Heart Procession was a conspicious omission – in my opinion, his presence added a great deal to the whole.

  8. Have you seen “things i don’t remember video”? I owned a rabbit similar to that of the video(the mechanical one that eates a carrot!).. there was a time i was terrified of it ’cause of its red eyes(i think it was satanic) but now i want it,where has it gone?who bring it away from me? ..that’s the power of television..

  9. i love modest mouse and and ugly casanova but the fact that people at my school, that are just tredy faggots lisen to them now- SOME HOW – Makes me so pissed. they hear about a band and get the cd cause its the trendy thing to do. fucking idots i hate them. i know you know what i’m talking about. and its not just thos two bands either thats the worst part.

  10. hey lance…way to equate the term “faggot” with “fucking idiot”….maybe one way to differentiate mainstream society and all it’s carbon copy indie followers would be to stop perpetuating hate in the *reaL* indie scene.

  11. I really hope some of Isaac Brock’s stuff (either Modest Mouse or Ugly Casanova) gets in a Wes Anderson movie. All those soundtracks are amazin’, and I would be so proud if Brock et al got on the next one.

    I know where you’re comin’ from lance, but what about a year ago when you were thinking “everyone’s so stupid because they listen to Britney Spears, but no cool bands like Modest Mouse.” Just be true to yourself, and everything will work out. As Brock said himself, God takes care of himself, and you of you (Styrofoam Boots/All Nice On Ice).

  12. Question…A friend once told me that Isacc Brock is gay…anybody know the truth? Mouse and Cassanova rule! Anybody ever heard of the band “MY MORNING JACKET”?

  13. sharpen your teeth is one of the best albums of all time, i saw ugly at tt the bears place in cambridge, mass, and got kicked out before the show started, fuck that club, and the fuck the faggot bartender.

  14. As a canadian living in Ontario (who is F@#%ing obsessed with Modest Mouse), I find it depressing that they never come to eastern canada. Should I make a petition or something??

  15. I just read lance’s comment on all the pop culture sheep who mindlessly follow trends. I think hating is waste of time and energy. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MUSIC BABY!!! Who cares about what other people do?? A true Modest Mouse fan would wish more success on them so they will continue to create real meaningful music. So what if they’re popular.

  16. I just want to add that when you say My Morning Jacket are the “shit,” I fully agree you badass motherfunker.

  17. Modest Mouse and Ugly Casanova are both great…but I can’t understand some of the lyrics. Anyone know what the lyrics are to Ice on the Sheets?

    PS. Ever heard Broken Social Scene? You Forgot It In People is one of the most outstanding albums I’ve ever heard. Ever.

  18. Modest Mouse and Ugly Casanova are both great…but I can’t understand some of the lyrics. Anyone know what the lyrics are to Ice on the Sheets?

    PS. Ever heard Broken Social Scene? You Forgot It In People is one of the most outstanding albums I’ve ever heard. Ever.

  19. Awesome article. Ugly Casanova is best to listen to when you are driving at night, in the winter, on icy roads, when you’re high, and you try to do a three-sixty in the car on the ice. That’s the best memory I have…”I lay down with the southern range.” – Ugly Casanova (rules)

    E-mail me please. I’m a loser.

  20. this article was excellent. i am sitting in a room ful of computers on a crip fall afternoon (the sky is just amazing today) and i just finished reading this article and my car is outside waiting for me, as i’m in here waiting to put sharpen your teeth in my cd player and enjoy a long autumn drive through the countryside of pa. sharpen your teeth is a perfect end-of-summer & autumn album, always spinning these days. i really hope people feel the same way about fall days and UC as i do, because it’s a great feeling that everyone should be able to experience.

  21. I’ll back “anonymous” up on the question about the lyrics for “Ice on the Sheets.” Anyone have a clue? My brother saw Ugly Cas play out in Hollywood. They played “Ice…” towards the end and he says that Isaac didn’t use the same lyrics. He thinks they’re just random and have a tendency to change, but they sound bad-ass regardless. Oh yeah, and calling a trendy faggot a “trendy faggot” is not hateful. Calling a real faggot a “faggot” is, though.

    You kids play nice, now.

  22. I love Modest Mouse and Ugly Cassanova. These lyrics are amazing! Does anyone know the lyrics for “Cat faces”? Oh and has anyone seen that car commercial with “gravity rides everything” playing in the background? Maybe Lance has a comment on this one.

  23. This whole album would fit well right into the two seconds in Rushmore when Max Fischer says “I miss the trees and seeing the seasons change” after being kicked out of Rushmore. Rushmore is Max’s passion in life that has just been lost, and, as with Ugly Cassanova’s cd, you don’t know whether you should cry, just stare and reminisce, or throw up your fist with triumph and gratification in the wonder of life. Overall, both have some nostalgia that hits me everytime I see an October leaf on some ground that I should have spent some time on with a friend. Maybe that’s why so many of the lyrics to Ugly Cassanova don’t make sense, because there’s so many ‘should’ve’s and confusion about what actually happened, and then, when I know the beauty of what actually happened, I am indignant that it is over. I think it is best to cover it up with jibberish and let the sounds convey the message

  24. The UC show that I saw in LA was on of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Isaac is a weird bird. Just saw him in MM in Vegas and he said one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard…..Somebody in the crowd was screaming out song titles. Isaac then says “Do I look like a fucking Jukebox? And do you look like the Fonze?” I was dying. Anyways, you guys are right on. BTS, Broken Social Scene, UC, MM, Sea & Cake, are all amazing bands.

  25. is Isaac Brock gay? I’m just curious because in the song “things I dont remember” he sing “…you’re the sailor and I’m the port” His sexual orientation wouldnt change my opinion of his song writing. He’s my current favorite artist of all time.

  26. new MM cd is amazing x 10. though i’ve been seeing the music video on mtv…don’t think they’ll ever go mainstream too good too good. it’s beautiful.

  27. New album is incredible! To answer the question about Isaac being gay-he’s not! I just read that he has a kid and lives with his girlfriend.

    1. doesn’t mean he’s bound to one tendency– probably a free spirit, I’d reckon. And who the fuck cares? that song is a sensory masterpiece– this album is in my top five faves.

  28. as far back as i can remember (since the fruit that ate itself, i think), modest mouse has been my obsession. now, looking back and looking now, i have to say that issac brock has been the epitome of my obsession. ugly casanova is amazing. i mean whoa. xo

  29. listening to modest mouse and ugly cassanova is more of a spiritual thing for me than anything else.

  30. I dunno if you will ever look at these posts again but this is a very well written article. I enjoyed it.

  31. I agree with every one else man, great article, i’ve listened to diamonds on the face of evil wondering what she shaw she shaw could possibly mean, thank you for directing my thoughts. It truly is a great album

  32. Hard to believe it’s been 7 years since this came out. I still listen to it on a regular basis and love it.

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