Those aren’t boundaries
Alas, Alak, Alaska! wanders into the last indie-folk frontier
I keep missing Alas, Alak, Alaska! shows around town, which is inexcusable. Really: The band—Jocelyn Noir, vocals and guitar; Genaro Ulloa, bass and keys; Jeannie McDonald, percussion—seems to play shows on a weekly basis, in one incarnation or another. There’s really no good reason not to catch them.
AAA performs wild, unexpected indie folk with hints of bluegrass, country and even psychedelia. Noir (not her real last name), 22, is the leader of the troupe, and she’s quite the musical force: a bit of a virtuoso, if raw, on the guitar, and with a voice that’s equal parts gritty and soaring alto. Her solo songs are modern folk tales of bygone, dusty travels, told by way of stripped-bare voice and guitar, but with the occasional psych-rock interlude. Just don’t describe AAA as “freak-folk”: It’s not, and Noir would be offended.
With Ulloa, who plays keys for the Evening Episode, and McDonald on percussion, AAA is a dynamic trio. I know this ’cause although I’ve yet to see them live, I made it to a band practice once.
Ulloa was unloading his Hohner keyboard; it was their first practice as a band with live keys, in fact. There was a cat, Zammis, named after a character in some ’80s Wolfgang Petersen film, in the living room, and he shuffled around in unpredictable fashion, a lot like Noir’s fingers jumping up and down the fretboard.
“He tricks you into thinking he has boundaries,” Ulloa warned of the cat. AAA’s songs do the same. A track will begin with gentle arpeggios, but then a measure will go on and on, change key, abandon the time signature, then get dropped altogether. The songwriting is pleasingly impulsive.
Noir arrived at practice, just back from a Saturday in Bodega Bay with newfound friends—puppeteers, no less. She toted an old-school cassette recorder, on which she’d been documenting thoughts and ideas. Her hair recently was cut short, and she wore an apricot velvet scarf, a seersucker shirt, black sweater, coal jeans and loafers.
Noir sat and talked about growing up in Placerville, where she lived until moving to Sacramento four years ago. Her grandmother was a country singer and taught her how to pick the guitar at age 9. Her cousin won a Grammy. Her aunt wrote for Merle Haggard. Her brother is in the local group Afternoon Brother. Needless to say, music’s a family gig.
Ulloa talked about playing trombone in An Angle before settling into his two current bands. He said that since joining AAA, “Jocelyn is more band-oriented.”
“’Cause now I can fuckin’ groove a little bit,” Noir said, laughing.
And groove they can. They ran through a new track—Ulloa on bass, McDonald chiming in with her triangle’s eloquent ring—and the song had a jazzy march unlike some of Noir’s earlier straight-folk recordings. It was quick, smooth, sharp.
AAA will be on tour most of this month with Whitman, traveling along the Northwest coast. They’ll also play Davis and Sacramento twice on the tour. What’s more, AAA will be at the True Love Coffeehouse March 29, with Chelsea Wolfe and Sister Crayon. Like I said, they play a lot.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the name Alas, Alak, Alaska!: It’s derived from a Frank Capra film, It Happened One Night, during an absurd alliterative moment.