Over the years, this quiet New York ensemble has sustained their tone

Meet Ida 

Over the years, this quiet New York ensemble has sustained their tone

It's been a few years since Ida went on a tour. Naturally, there have been problems. They had to cancel the first few shows due to a health problem, and then had to hightail it to Texas; many messages left on machines trying to schedule an interview were lost in the shuffle. Strangely, there aren't many interviews with any members of the band around; their press pack, which contains snippets from the likes of Spin, Time Out New York, The New York Times, CMJ and Entertainment Weekly, barely begins to delve deeper into the musicians and the sentiments that make up Ida. What one is left with is numerous albums and songs. In the spirit of formalist criticism, which argues that one can find all the meaning one needs within the structure and language of an object under study, Ida's new record, Heart Like a River, is true-to-form Ida, a culmination of all of the roads the musicians have traveled down, but never wandered too far off.

You may have never heard of Ida, but their story is not unlike that of many independent bands: They formed in New York in 1992, when Elizabeth Mitchell, who had been playing with Lisa Loeb, met Daniel Littleton. Mitchell and Littleton started writing songs together, their similarly styled acoustic guitar playing and voices blending together seamslessly. They added bassist Rick Lassiter, and recorded their first album on a 4-track; once Lassiter moved away, Daniel's brother, Michael, joined the band. Once their tape fell into the hands of Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thompson, of the Simple Machines label, Ida secured a niche on the indie rock timeline. It was an era of messy guitars, spontaneity, lo-fi home recordings and innovative songwriting; amid their energetic brethren, Ida stayed quiet and slow, Mitchell and Littleton's hushed voices quilted over strings, piano, acoustic guitar and the occasional electric ribbon.

Ida's first two albums on Simple Machines, Tales of Brave Ida (1994) and I Know About You (1996), are tree-lined backroads of America; cloudless skies, with an occasional downpour. Fingerpicked electric and acoustic guitars sometimes melting into feedback, harmonized vocals, strings and occasional drums. Bassist Karla Schickele (Beekeeper, K.) joined up in late 1996, and began adding her own voice and songs to Mitchell and Littleton's repertoire; 1997's Ten Small Paces, mostly recorded on the road, included a few of Schickele's songs, along with covers of Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and the Secret Stars' "Shoe-In."

In 1997, Capitol Records began signing a number of independent bands, Ida included, but before the record they created could be released, nearly the entire staff at Capitol was replaced, and the band was dropped. In the meantime, Michael Littleton left the band, and Elizabeth Mitchell, who used to teach at a New York nursery school, released the first of her two records of folk songs for children on her own label, Last Affair Records.

Ida had to buy the rights to their Capitol material back, and in 2000, Will You Find Me was released on Tiger Style. The record was their best yet; slightly louder at times, more melodically focused and sparse. The remainder of the material recorded during the Capitol sessions was released in 2001 as The Braille Night, but it was nothing near the caliber of Will You Find Me or I Know About You.

Even though the band took time off so that Mitchell and Littleton could get married and have a baby, they all kept themselves busy: Warn Defever, the band's producer, released a remix album, Shhh; Schickele began her side project, K.; Littleton released a solo record and collaborated on one with Tara Jane O'Neil; Mitchell released another children's record; and Mitchell and Littleton began a side project together, called Nanang Tatang. Littleton and Mitchell's music became even quieter, focusing more on harmonium and meditative organ chords.

So it's been four years since the last real Ida album, and the band has a new drummer, Ruth Keating; a new violin player, Jean Cook; and their old sound has been re-energized (although Keating did not play drums on the record). Ida has never been one to stray too far from the beaten path, and Heart Like a River (Polyvinyl) combines the best elements of I Know About You and Will You Find Me, with the ever-present harmonium providing a subtle foundation. The record begins with "Laurel Street," and Mitchell's clear voice sustains notes over a quietly strummed acoustic guitar as the harmonium hums quietly underneath the sheets. As the strumming picks up a tiny bit of volume, Mitchell and Schickele's vocals blend in the chorus; a guitar feeds back for a moment. "599" kicks in with drums, organs, electric guitar and both Littleton and Mitchell singing; when their voices harmonize and shift key over a ringing guitar line, you can hear all the different phases and modes of the band amalgamate into one; the quiet and the loud, the emotional and the withheld.

"Late Blues" could have easily been left off the record, and we'd be none the wiser; its awkward jazz-style intro is more early Ida, and it sounds weak compared to the rest of the record. "Mine" is reminiscent of Ida's minimalist cousins, Low, and "What Can I Do" rests on Schickele's low voice and piano, sounding a bit like Aimee Mann. "Sundown" manages, like many of Littleton's songs, to capture a quiet moment within the urban motion of New York City. "Honeyslide," another Schickele song, crescendos into a string- and vocal-harmony-filled chorus; Littleton, Schickele and Mitchell's voices all layer over each other "like a song, like a honeyslide."

Ida's lyrics have been criticized; oftentimes, they are shunned as being overly emotional or too pretty. But the lyrics are not so much the focus as how they are delivered; Ida's real signature is in the melding of Littleton, Mitchell, and Schickele's voices.

Heart Like a River, like Will You Find Me, is another worthwhile album, but hopefully not one that most people will miss.

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