One might well wonder why the hell Isaac Brock would need a side project. It's hard to imagine that anything that bears the Modest Mouse name is being made without his imprimatur all over it. Does he really
need to express musicals concept that he can't produce through the band that he clearly controls completely?
Having listened to Ugly Casanova, I have to answer that question with a qualified "yes".
For better or, on occasion, for worse, Ugly Casanova doesn't sound much like Modest Mouse. The two bands have, say, the same level of similarity that Stephin Merritt's side project the 6ths has to his main band, The Magnetic Fields. There is some similarity in tone, in delivery, and in subject matter, but in both cases the sound, the instruments used and the feel of the albums are very different.
Ugly Casanova gives free rein to the Tom Waits-style musical anarchist in Brock. There are, in fact, a couple of songs that sound precisely like Waits, though most simply draw Brock's own unique approaches into other musical traditions. In each of these songs, there are elements that will be familiar to any Modest Mouse listener, but also things that are unexpected.
"Spilled Milk Factory", for instance, features the multiple-Isaac vocal approach familiar from any number of other tracks, but here combines the wailing and groaning with some metallic background percussion, steel guitar and dirty blues harmonica. Often, Brock opts for the achingly pretty, and his singing voice (which has gotten precious little exposure via the shout-spoken Modest Mouse canon) is surprisingly pretty. Take, for instance, "Hotcha Girls", where the spoken words are bullhorn-processed and the backing vocals are strikingly melodic.
Then, there are the moments when you can almost see Mr. Waits' grizzled mug smiling over Brock's shoulder: "Diamonds On The Face of Evil", which features the patented Tom Waits percussive effect that sounds like a bunch of dissimilar objects hitting the ground at the same time, placed in a four-four time signature. And again, on "Pacifico", which sounds like an update of the Rain Dogs classic "Gun Street Girl", and includes the oracular (and titular) line "sharpen your teeth / or lay flat."
Finally, there are songs that sound like nothing so much as Modest Mouse remixed by an especially adept producer: "Parasites" is not only a particularly winning song, but the addition of horns, backmasked guitars, synth rhythms and various electronic burbles serves to flesh out the somewhat minimalist canvas Brock has painted in the past.
If Ugly Casanova is a standalone project, it's an excellent and memorable album. If it's inaugurating a new phase of experimentation with his main band, I'm dying to hear their next record.