Side projects are usually crap (Bowie's Tin Machine, anyone?), and indie-rock side projects are usually worse (the Rentals, blah, blah, blah). But in the case of Ugly Casanova, a bluesy, loopy offering from Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock and roadie-cum-low rent-troubadour Brian Deck with all-but-forgotten ghosts of über-indie-rock circa '95 like Red Red Meat's Tim Rutili, the result is actually greater than the sum of its overrated parts. Though not promising much (re: it's billed as Deck's record), "Sharpen" glows with a tired, late-summer beauty and low-fi immediacy. Rutili's patented bright guitar tones have the clarity of a clean and sober Keith Richards as he nudges along the Crazy Horse-goes-camping sing-along rhythm of "Barnacles" and hushed ballads like "Hotcha Girls."
Experimental electronic production uh, sharpens "Sharpen Your Teeth" throughout, Brock and Deck are careful not to get too carried away, give or take a few regrettable turns into Captain Beefheart ("Diamonds on the Face of A Girl") and Syd Barrett ("Bee Sting") that should have emptied the control room long before the whiskey bottle.
For every Tom Waits-wannabe jam like "Spoiled Milk Factory" that teeters between freak-out blues and just-plain-spazzy run-ons, there's an outta-nowhere anthem like "Parasites." The Ugly's version of Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More" gives traditional songwriting a pulsing, shuddering electronic backing rhythm; the sampled horns and Rutili's gee-tar make the whole thing sound like some futuristic hip-hop ballad for the Everlasts of 2017. Couple that with some cuts that could pass for misplaced Wilco B-sides ("Smoke Like Ribbons") and blissed-out melancholy ("So Long to the Holidays") and you've got the feel-good-about-feeling-bad album of the year -- or at least one of them.