Ugly Casanova
Sharpen Your Teeth
Sub Pop

Talk about alt-country all you want. In today's beatwise future, pretty much anyone with a guitar--whether pop-punk cheeseball or neu-metal wunderkind--is a roots rocker, scratching in the dead earth of tradition for sustenance and continuity. But Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock's petulant drawl has never seemed like a feint toward rootsiness. In fact, its hick connotations are both timeless and rootless, like the ancient mariner sleeping in a refrigerator box underneath an I-5 overpass. Brock's latest incarnation as Ugly Casanova maintains continuity only with his own past work: Not only does Sharpen Your Teeth slouch further in the spacier direction of MM's The Moon and Antarctica, but it further develops the alter ego who surfaced thereabouts.

The lyrics on the last Modest Mouse album, you see, were supposedly influenced by a nutsy fan named Edgar Graham who dubbed himself Ugly Casanova and followed the band on tour, writing and recording with them. Graham disappeared (conveniently spiriting the session tapes away with him) but his home recordings of the songs on Sharpen Your Teeth later surfaced in the Sub Pop offices. Brock and his cohorts (Califone's Brian Deck and Tim Rutili, and Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins) dutifully rerecorded them. The apocryphal dude's supposed lyrics, grim observations such as "We clung on like barnacles on a boat/Even though the ship sinks you know you can't let go," don't seem to alter Brock's ego much. "Parasites," a variation on "The worms crawl in/The worms crawl out" articulates Brock's longstanding obsession with decay quite neatly: "All your thoughts"--[beat]--"they rot."

If Modest Mouse's driving musical tension derives from the unexpected harmonic interplay of their bass and guitar, Sharpen Your Teeth stretches itself taut between Brock's soft moans and the clattering rhythms underneath. Deck and Rutili have always brought plenty of red, red meat to the table; they've just needed a more melodic skeleton to flesh out. As acoustic guitars pick out lines that are more appropriately called figures than melodies, miscellaneous percussion makes enough off-kilter clamor to float (or maybe sink) a half-dozen Tom Waits records. ("Diamonds on the Face of Evil" keeps the beat with what sounds like the thrash of a heavy chain.) Brock may be a part of the rhythm nation after all, but the proposition of one nation under a groove has never seemed more a threat and less a promise. After all, what if that groove is so heavy it crushes the wind out of you completely?

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