CMJ – THE LAST WORD 1996
First off, let’s set the record straight for those; not in the know: Idaho is from Los Angeles, not-spud-land, and it is (at least now) a real band, and not just the one-word moniker for frontman Jeff Martin. And while Idaho’s third full-length effort, Three Sheets To The Wind (Caroline), still offers reason enough to draw comparisons to fellow torpor-rockers like Low, American Music Club or Red House Painters, the record is plainly more than just a few minor chords and a doe-eyed outlook: It marks the continual blossoming of Martin as both a songwriter and a musician, reflected in the record’s complexity of moods and sonic textures. “Idaho’s been kinda doing the same thing over and over and now we’re starting to experiment with different moods, and lyrically it’s changing,” explains Martin. “It sounds like Idaho, but it’s getting pretty fun, it’s finally breaking out of that hole. I think I’ve been in a chokehold for a while — I love everything that I’ve been doing but it’s kinda the same song. I’m ready to leave that cyclical thing.”
Strangely enough, aside from the expected obsessing on the emotional weight of Martin’s tunes, a great deal of attention has been paid to his custom-built four-string guitars and the oddball tunings that make them sound so expressive. “I’m glad people are picking up on it,” Martin says. “I think that’s much of what gives Idaho its sound. The four-strings and tunings completely changes the way rock music is perceived. I could never write songs on regular six-string tunings, I’m utterly bored with those chords. I think that it’s such a beat-to-death medium. That’s kind of why I got into this kind of music at all, because I discovered this kind of personal approach… The cool thin is it would be really hard to cover and Idaho song.” All of the neck twisting and string stretching required to re-tune a single guitar for just one Idaho song is a virtual nightmare in a live setting, unfortunately, ‘cause there’s so many tunings; That’s the thing playing live, but we’re getting better — we have six of them now, so we can almost do a set without re-tuning. We might want to play some older songs that we can’t play because there is just one particular tuning for that song. Someday if we get 12 guitars we’ll be in really good shape.”
While Idaho’s music has always relied somewhat on the eerie, shimmering bits of beauty Martin squeezes from his four strings, Three Sheets marks the first time in which he actually formed sounds and compositions based on the interaction of a full band in the studio. The group’s first record, the resolutely somber Year After Year, was the product of Martin and guitarist John Berry, who subsequently left for its follow-up, This Way Out, leaving Martin alone in the studio to record and write everything himself. “This record’s kind of a transitionary thing, a lot of Jeff Martin kind of solo stuff and then the band figuring out that it has its own thing as well. I think the record captures just the beginning of that. The records before were strictly solo records...It wasn’t until the end of the recording process [for Three Sheets] that we discovered that we could really play the music without doing overdubs. Since the record, we’ve just exploded, I mean we could do a double record, easily, in a month. So it’s gone from squeezing songs through keyholes to just this river – it’s kinda exciting. We can’t wait to go out and play. Three Sheets sounds like it’s 10 years old now”
In a matter of days, Martin and co. will hit the road for a series of scattered dates with Low on the East and West Coasts. When asked if he thinks the somewhat lethargic nature of both groups might make the evening a bit too low-key for audiences to handle, Martin re-emphasizes the changes the band has gone through since recording the new album: “Our set is so drastically varied now. It’s not just one sort of stark, heavy emotion at all. I mean it actually gets kind of playful at times and it gets totally punk rock. It moves around a lot which actually bothers some fans of the older stuff, but I can’t think about that, I gotta keep myself interested.” For Martin, keeping himself interested may involve more than just mixing up his live show or coming up with some new, colorful tuning. With the considerable number of songs the band has penned since Three Sheets, Martin sees Idaho’s horizons expanding beyond the careful, understated beauty of its current output. “Strangely enough, I think we are going to retain our original voice but really become more assimilated into the pop music arena. I see us getting to the point where we might write a hit song. And to me, the old Idaho — I could not perceive of that happening. I think we are still going to be writing very personal and very honest music...! think that this band is completely capable of writing a song that could be a fucking big hit. I think we have four or five that already exist that are really great, simple catchy songs that a six-year-old would like or a 20-year-old.” Here’s hoping the rest of the world catches up.