There’s something very odd about a band that begins its name with a lowercase letter, then ends it with an exclamation point. It’s a very contradictory statement. It, at first gives you the notion that it lacks the confidence to even consider itself a proper noun, but then demands your attention with that exclamation point, forcing you to shout the word, discrediting the lowercase beginning.
For alaska!, however, this technique works beyond mere irony. The duo, comprised of Sebadoh drummer Russ Pollard and Lowercase frontman Imaad Wasif, creates a subtle, humble sort of rock music that manages to kick your ass without you expecting it. Perhaps it’s Pollard’s transition from drummer to singer that creates this sort of paradoxical effect. A percussionist, previously used to being hidden behind his kit on the back of the stage, makes his way to the front, and still manages to blend in, despite his newfound frontman status.
On alaska!’s debut, Emotions, noise is somehow soothing, and gentle melodies are curiously unsettling. The first track, “The Western Shore,” begins with a barrage of waltzing drums and dense guitar riffs, bringing to mind some of Idaho’s louder stuff, only coincidentally drawing comparisons to another band named for a state. The second track sounds like a crunchier Elliott Smith. But similarities to LA-via-Portland singer-songwriter don’t stop there. The following track, “Sun Don’t Shine,” could have been an outtake from XO, and the album closer, “In My Time” sounds like a younger cousin to Smith’s “Cupid’s Trick.”
Pollard and Wasif make excellent songwriting partners, but the duo is also capable of singing some sweet, lilting harmonies. The album’s centerpiece, “Rust and Cyanide,” displays alaska!’s fine harmonizing abilities in lyrics that portray their namesake as a majestic, serene salvation until about four minutes in, when the song softly swells into a gigantic epic, minor key coda, showing us lucky listeners what happens when a song can completely turn itself inside-out.
Sebadoh frontman Lou Barlow recently recruited the duo to replace John Davis in the new incarnation of his Folk Implosion. Certainly, Pollard and Wasif are more than adequate as a backing band, but they’re twice as interesting when they’re in charge.
Idaho Three Sheets to the Wind
Elliott Smith either/or
Folk Implosion The New Folk Implosion
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.