Issue #6: Alas by Idaho
March 7, 2016
Released On October 13, 1998
Released By Buzz Records
Every so often, if you’re lucky, you discover a band or album that completely redefines all your benchmarks for listening and making music. It’s not always the type of artist you would expect either. That’s the beauty and joy in this endeavor of musical archaeology. Idaho stands to this day as one of my most prized unearthings. My first encounter was in the early 2000s when a friend introduced me to their sixth record, Levitate. I was immediately struck by Jeff Martin’s sense of subtlety, varied production, and casual melancholy. Delving back into the catalog, I delightfully discovered roots in spacious, noisy guitar rock on songs like “Weird Wood” from This Way Out. A sound bearing semblance to bands like Low, Red House Painters, and Codeine, yet occupying to my ears, a unique sonic space. There was this feedback and it was beautiful. The delicate weaving of overdriven guitar textures — from custom 4-string guitars — would become a defining characteristic of their records, even in the softest moments. The range that exists in their discography has proven to be continually enjoyable. While I had to pick one album, I implore further exploration.
I have chosen Alas, Idaho’s fourth album and one that perfectly captures almost all of their qualities, save perhaps the more raucous ones. Originally released in 1998 and later as an expanded re-release with the Forbidden EP and B-Sides, it’s a masterfully consistent record. A cover with what looks like a photogrammed snowflake on a night sky promises an eerie chilliness that we get right away on “Jump Up.” There’s the hallmark washy feedback and when Joey Waronker comes in on the kit, it so perfectly drives and sits back at the same time. Melissa Auf der Maur’s hazy harmonies haunt these songs beautifully. While maintaining a simple core of guitar, bass, and drums throughout, each track is colored by the addition of at least one other unique instrument — pizzicato strings, marimba, wurly, oboe. “Scrawny” is the one track where we see Martin introduce more overt digital production, a sound that surfaces more on later releases. It’s also a sound that seems to exist outside of any semblance of a genre or trend. As a complete piece, Alas is so confidently focused inward. The songs exist in perfect relationship to one another and the entire record flows effortlessly. I have encountered few other recordings that feel so comfortably sequenced. They feel more like movements or vignettes than typical songs. Perhaps “compositions” is a more accurate term. Less is more and in this case, we see it can be so much more! It’s all the little details, the clarity, and the hovering oddness that make this a wonderfully uncommon record. The spoken lyrics in “Yesterday’s Unwinding” are somehow intimate, unsettling, and reassuring all at the same time. Martin’s guitar playing is full of peculiar notes and chord phrasings that demonstrate a sophistication below a beguilingly simple surface. His approach has caused me to look closer at my own playing and writing. This album will always be an inspiration to me in its brilliant balance of mood and beauty.
I hope you find Idaho to be as interesting and rewarding as I have. Make sure to check out www.idahomusic.com.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
Idaho mastermind and slowcore pioneer Jeff Martin circa 1998.
Idaho are one of several bands that I associate with erstwhile fanzine The Big Takeover. Editor Jack Rabid started The Big Takeover in the early 80s, and over the next few decades, took editorial policy in the direction of his own expanding tastes. His interests — college rock, shoegaze, Anglophile pop — overlap to some extent with plenty of other music press outlets I’ve followed over the years, but there have always been bands that Rabid extols the virtues of, but no one else seems to even mention. Idaho, along with For Against and The Mutton Birds, are one such band. Rabid’s contagious enthusiasm has led me to purchase albums by all of these groups at one point or another, and I own Idaho’s second album, This Way Out. That one has more of an indie feel than fourth album Alas, which is new to me. Alas helps me appreciate why so many people lump Idaho into the same “slowcore” genre tag often applied to Codeine and Low. This is a very downcast-sounding album, the perfect sort of music to play on a dreary day when you can’t seem to get out of bed. The middle section of the album holds its greatest strengths, with “You’ll Get To The Bottom Of This” epitomizing the slow-motion melancholy that’s spread over most of the album, while “Only In The Desert” sneaks a subtle melodic flair into the mix. This is the sort of music that channels sadness into a strange sort of uplifting feel, salving your wounds and helping you face the day even as it acknowledges the very real miseries of the human condition. It’s pretty great; I guess Jack Rabid was right after all.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
This is what the cool kids were listening to when I was trying to get information on when Taking Back Sunday would be releasing their new album. And what’s really frustrating is that it’s SO GOOD. But if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t have given this a second listen if you’d played it for me back then. I don’t think I was ready. I’m ready now. This is what I always hope Pavement is going to sound like: chill, in control, can rock if they want to, it’s just that they don’t necessarily want to right now. Coiled like a snake. Ready to strike. Oh whoa. I try not to look at the Wikipedia for these albums because I like listen to them with no context, writing just based on what I hear, but that female vocal that is most prominent on “Yesterday’s Unwinding?” That’s Melissa Auf der Maur, who most people will associate with Hole, but who I think of as “one of the bass players that Smashing Pumpkins had.” “Run But You Ran” is the highlight for me. I like the slow build of the song into that BUM BUM of the bass and drum and then how it works itself into the song. Like it’s not a different movement of the song; it’s a new element that is gradually blended into everything.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
From the moment those pizzicato strings popped in halfway through opening track “Jump Up,” I knew Idaho’s Alas would be something special. They engage in the kind of genre blurring that characterizes a lot of the music I gravitate towards, so listening through this album for the first time was like listening to something I’ve known and loved for years. They move from the country-inflected “You’ll Get To The Bottom Of This” to the subtle electronics of “Scrawny” (car driving interlude thrown in for good measure), and then the bassoon comes in on “Only In The Desert” and it’s unexpected, yet feels just right (full disclosure, as an oboist I automatically love all music that includes double reeds). Closer “Leaves Upon The Water” fades away with a melancholy piano outro that ends the record beautifully. I could conclude this by saying something like, “this is a great indie rock record,” but that would be like calling Animal Collective simply indie rock, or Joanna Newsom merely folk. Idaho reaches for something more with this music, and the results are stunning.
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
I recently re-heard the interview “Inside Out” director Pete Docter did with Fresh Air — specifically the part where he talks about how moved Mindy Kaling was when she learned that the film would teach kids that it’s okay to be sad sometimes. That it’s actually part of being emotionally healthy — feeling sadness, pushing through it, and coming out the other side. What a beautiful message. The more I listen, the more I realize that Alas sends me that same message, not just because it’s moody or slow, but because of how the songs move. The major turn “Tensile” takes in the chorus, for example: the warmth that chorus brings in after a verse stricken with languid, arpeggiated minor chords — it’s like ice melting into water. Like survival. And as the cycle repeats with another verse and chorus, I keep thinking about how emotional health is an ongoing fight. It takes dedication and patience. Idaho, with their deliberate pacing, could not be a more perfect messenger. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the third track is called “You’ll Get To The Bottom Of This.” It may sound like a downer, but there’s so much hope wrapped in the idea of hitting bottom and starting to find your way back up. “Clouded” says “My brain is slow to catch up with all the joy” — Idaho may be slow, but they’re moving.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
“Live you like a wave / help you see the light”
On June 2nd, 1998, I skipped picking up my high school yearbook to buy the new Smashing Pumpkins album Adore. I was a huge fan and couldn’t wait to hear their new direction. That summer, I got into Nine Inch Nails, Joy Division, and Mogwai before starting college that fall. By October 13th, the release date for Alas, I was primed and ready for musical discovery. If someone would have handed me this record and mentioned Beck’s drummer, Joey Waronker, who played on Adore was in this band, I would have found the cash and taken the CD home. If I close my eyes while listening to this record, I instantly remember the feeling of my claustrophobic dorm room, the dopamine release of recording demos with the lights off, and the struggles of self-discovery. In hindsight, Idaho could have shortened my path to Burnt Toast Vinyl with bands like Unwed Sailor and Early Day Miners. They could have pushed me forward a couple years by introducing me to Elliott Smith, Grandaddy, or Earlimart. They could have been the “Perfect” bridge between the well-known and underground. Since Alas, Joey has played drums on several incredible albums that will always be a part of my collection, including Johnny Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around and Sea Change by Beck. Meanwhile Melissa Auf der Maur, who sang backup vocals on the record, ironically went on to play with Smashing Pumpkins.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
“It’s 6:00 am…I’m so deep in a deep, African sleep…submerged in a river of warm chocolate. And sleep was like a Goddess whore, just sucking me off. She’s got a gold helmet and forty tongues. And she’s speaking in a dead language. And she’s feeding syrupy heroin into my penis as she’s sucking it. Aaaaahhhh, let this be my life. Please let this be real.” – Louis CK on REM sleep. I’d like to imagine that the hilarious description above is similar to what one feels while high on opiates. The truth is that I’ve never partaken in such things, so I have no clue what it feels like. But after listening to Idaho’s Alas, I sure as shit know what it sounds like. It’s an audio Go-Pro through opiate addiction. The depressing, lazy drawl of the ironically titled “Jump Up” sets the table for an album full of ominous reflection. “Hope I live longer than the troubles that lurk about my head.” Yep, we’re definitely high right now. The morbid feeling continues through “Tensile.” On “Scrawny“, we’re high as fuck — “as I fly above the room, the face is always there.” How about the record’s “highest” point, “Clouded,” where our tour guide admits “my brain is slow to catch up with all the joy that’s everywhere / clouded by all the filth”, and “I don’t remember when I left the ground.” The final haunting account is our vocalist describing what it’s like to come back to reality on “Yesterday’s Unwinding“. The writing here is absolutely vivid — “You take away my dreams / there’s only sleep.” Drugs are bad, mmmkay.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Slowcore bands in indie rock are an interesting bunch. In many of the compositions, there is a large focus on how much can be extracted or minimized to create a song that still excites the listener. Groups like Low, Red House Painters, and Codeine have all been heralded as some of the best to emerge from the genre. And with now discovering Idaho and their release Alas, it would appear that they might be one of the best as well. The first argument in their favor would be the choices throughout the album that practically go against what one expects from the genre. Where other bands might choose to implement slower tempos and minimalist drums, Idaho engages their compositions with fluid, complex drum parts that elevate the rhythms of a number of the songs. You can hear this from the first moments on album opener “Jump Up.” Also, the songs move quickly and the record never lingers too long on a single idea, thus allowing Alas to engage the listener with a number of moving themes. Songwriter Jeff Martin is strong throughout with his confessionals detailing loneliness and eternal longing for what lies ahead. In his several detailed sonic accounts, the nice accompaniment from Melissa Auf der Mar on vocals is a fitting touch. The instrumentation choices are also fascinating with a nice assortment of vibes, keys as well as synths covering a number of the bases (especially on “Only In The Desert“). This is a solid release all around and a welcome discovery for a genre that can sometimes get overlooked, but never lacking in appreciation from fans.
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
First off, I realize I was given the title “Budding Appraiser Of Sonic Complexities,” and I intend to uphold that claim. On to the review, Idaho’s Alas is by far my favorite of all the albums we’ve had the opportunity to review thus far on Off Your Radar. Melancholy and introspective, Alas is a very smooth travel through soft sounds and gentle pacings. The occasional dichotomy of the male and female vocals on tracks such as “Tensile” tug at your heart. In reality, every single cut off of Alas is a heartwrenching trip of nostalgia brimming with tinges of all kinds of sad. Even if it is only nine tracks in length, Alas feels like it could last forever, cycling through and through for many years. It would never get old. While the entire piece is worthy of recognition, some standout tracks are a necessity. “You’ll Get To The Bottom Of This” starts of in a subtle off time rhythm with delicately picked guitars and brushed drums. Slowly and carefully, the tempo increases and the decibel level is raised until the anti-climactic peak of the song is reached, all while retaining the same elements of sound that were present from the beginning. Another standout for me is “Clouded.” Opening with only a deep vocal and phased guitar, the song soon hits a steady beat, slow but firm, and the occasional background bells keep the song moving. Idaho’s Alas is a beautiful and melancholic piece, and new levels of sadness and thought await around every corner of it.
Tyler Sirovy (@tswarovy)
Budding Appraiser Of Sonic Complexities
Guitarist Dan Seta tinkering with that timeless despondent sound in 1998.
When we were given the list of chosen records for the first six weeks, I knew immediately that Matt picked this one, knowing his work as a musician and his taste in music. Musically, I can see how this lovely, deceptively simple record shaped him. Idaho clearly inspired his work in The Low Branches, especially his minimal drumming style. I decided to see what more I could learn about my friend Matt from listening to Alas. (Matt, please do not tell me if I’m wrong, ok?) What does Matt like to do in his spare time? “When you get in your car you always seem to drive some place.” I’m going to guess he really likes to drive and go on adventures in the desert. Also, he likes to look at trees and think about the future. How does Matt feel about instrumental songs? He loves them, which is actually 100% true. Does Matt like to cry? This record feels sadly beautiful to me, which is fine, because sometimes we all gotta cry. What else should Matt listen to? When listening to Alas, I couldn’t help but hear Frankie Cosmos, who creates songs structured in a very similar way, in brief sketches. Frankie always reminds me of Mirah, and I think we’re due for an Advisory Committee rediscovery. The low, slow horn in “You’ll Get To The Bottom Of This” is reminiscent of the great Portastatic LP, I Hope Your Heart is Not Brittle. So what have we learned today? Obviously, Alas is a lost classic, but also, Matt likes minimal drumming, hanging out in the desert, songs without lyrics, and sad stuff. And finally, everyone should listen to Mirah.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Gonna let this write up come together stream-of-consciousness style because I’m feeling extra wavy tonight. Off the dome, “Scrawny” is definitely my jam here. That instrumental is so rubbery yet oddly propulsive. It’s chilly and hypnotic, sounding like the theme music to a cave level from a 90s video game. Like a lot of the tracks here, it’s also full of all these little tics that reward repeated listens. Equally compelling: the female spoken-word musings on “Yesterday’s Unwinding.” That voice is such a great twist. Holding a moment like that til so late in the album allows it to really feel like a surprise. It stopped me cold the first time I heard it. It also feels like a bit of a subversion of the rest of the record in that it gives someone a chance to actually respond to Jeff Martin’s endless introspection. Oh and damn, “Only In The Desert” is crazy. That xylophone hook has such a pull. The first time I heard it, I found myself actively leaning in closer to my laptop, which really is a fitting summation of how I feel about this album as a whole. I want to spend a lot more time digging into Alas, and I really feel like the bulk of that time is gonna be spent hovering over a keyboard, typing up public relations strategies for my senior project. I can certainly think of worse soundtracks.
Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
As great as the lyrics are on Alas, I’m not even sure they’re needed for me to enjoy this record. They do add a lot to the record though, creating a guide through the despondency of Jeff Martin that raises the record from simply noteworthy to undeniably spectacular. The first time listening to “You’ll Get To The Bottom Of This“, I remember instantly dropping what I was doing when I heard the line “style don’t matter much at all” because it — and the record itself really — reminded me so much of that famous “uncool” scene in “Almost Famous.” But the lyrics aren’t vital in triggering a deep emotional response, or with me at least. The first words of “Scrawny” aren’t even spoken until the 1:17 mark, yet after merely thirty seconds, I’m already completely engrossed in the artificially bleak soundscape. It makes me stop and wonder how much of my own internal struggle is completely artificial, man made in response to just a sour mood one day. The slowly diminishing outro of “Jump Up” makes me realize the stubbornness of such melancholy while “Only In The Desert” tolerably teaches me how to care and mind the joy and light in life, before it has a chance to corrupt itself into dissonant and uncomfortable. I know I sound super depressed detailing all of this, but it’s not that the music makes me gloomier than I was before. Instead, it helps me quantify these buried feelings and allows me to clarify them in a bold epiphany. This is all happening before I even stop to consider the lyrics and the emotional weight they provide. That should really tell you all you need to know about the quality of Alas.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Alas by Idaho may not be to everyone’s taste as a record especially in the modern age of dissipating attention spans. What it lacks in immediate punch though, it more than makes up for in musical gravitas. With Jeff Martin’s vocals crafting a strikingly visceral and melancholy ambiance, the music hovers over evocative lyrics like “your love of life began there was no reason to run, but you ran” from “Run But You Ran.” Every song on the record in one way or another seems to musically paint an expansive landscape in which your imagination can run amok, like the twinkling xylophone that lifts mellow guitars on “Only In The Desert.” Even at its most somber lyrical moments in “Clouded,” the guitars bubble underneath the surface without overshadowing what Martin is trying to convey. There is a very real sense that the band is trying to juxtapose the music and the lyrics in a very stripped back form. On one of my first listens to Alas, a line from the film “High Fidelity” bounced into my thoughts: “I don’t wanna hear old sad bastard music, Barry. I just want something I can ignore.” This may seem a flippant way to quantify what is in my opinion a fine piece of art (and it is certainly not “old sad bastard music”). The reasoning being is it can be easy to ignore things you love, yet very difficult to ignore things you indescribably hate. It may be easy to ignore this record simply because it can go from start to finish in the blink of an eye, but the fact that it easily invigorates one’s psyche subconsciously and in a truly mesmeric way makes it impossible to overlook.
Matt Green (@happymad1986)
Fiery Orator Of Nostalgia
Into The Sun by Sean Lennon
Chosen By James Anderson