'Alas' shows Idaho's sparse musicality
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As an American state, Idaho is probably best known for its potatoes and funny shape. The very mention of Idaho brings to mind images of a vast and sprawling landscape and a desolate four votes in the Electoral College. Idaho, the band, captures these same images in its fourth LP since 1993, Alas. Undeterred by being dropped from Caroline records sometime after its 1996 LP, Three Sheets to the Wind, Idaho continues to quietly release beautiful music.
Like the state, Idaho's music is sparse but not empty. In fact, Idaho seems to do with one selected, well-timed guitar chord what many others unsuccessfully attempt in slews of tricks and changes. Idaho's ponderous and desperate chord progressions lend much of their mood-creating effects to mere simplicity of form.
Everything about Idaho is intentionally simplistic. The band itself technically consists only of its two members, Jeff Martin and Dan Seta, with different guests appearing on each Idaho release. Even the guitars themselves are stripped down only with four strings, with very little in the way of effects pedals and similar in sound to other snore-core bands like Low or Bedhead. Martin produces and co-engineers Alas as well, thereby cutting out as many middlemen as possible.
Yet all of the minimalism is exactly what makes Idaho so mesmerizing. Like every Idaho release, don't expect any upbeat dance tracks. But if lying around and senselessly brooding to music is your thing, Alas would be too.
The great thing about many bands that are so prolific (Idaho has also released several EPs since 1993) is that they often tend to experiment with new ideas.
For a while, Idaho seemed in danger of going stale with its very basic formula of slow guitars and ambient background feedback. But with Three Sheets to the Wind, it was obvious that some serious musical growth was taking place. The growth was furthered in 1997's The Forbidden EP, and continues in Alas.
A few interesting effects have been added like "Scrawny" with its echoed, trance-like guitar loops. Bells and keyboards, among other things, have been lightly incorporated throughout the album in songs like, "Only in the Desert" and "Clouded." Most notably, soft and gracious vocals by "Melissa auf der maur" are added throughout in songs such as, "Jump Up" and "Tensile," giving Idaho's music, in some respects, a much fuller quality than it ever had.
It is Martin's vocals which make the band much of what it is. Deep and slow moving, they seem to crawl almost unwillingly from Martin's throat, reminiscent of Mark Sandman of Morphine. Yet the vocals hit their mark with stunning consistency careening in the most subtle half-step intervals, creating a deeply effective sense of despondency.
There are moments on the album where the spaciousness of the music seems to trail off and get lost a bit in some of the later tracks. As a whole, it is not quite as solid as Three Sheets to the Wind, but is definitely more so than Idaho's earliest music. There are definitely some serious gems on this LP. "Tensile" could be about the best Idaho song ever.
Idaho's music could be likened to a long drive through the vast and beautiful state. Its size and moodiness makes one pensive and self-reflective. The trip is well worth it if all of its facets can be observed and taken to heart.
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