In the 1960s, groups like Brooklyn’s Ida would be strumming their acoustic guitars in coffeehouses, hoping that Melanie or Tom Paxton or David Geffen would come along and notice something — the fineness of their harmonies, the insights of their songs, the gentleness of their souls, the cut of their sandals — and give them a boost up the ladder of mass-market love. Phew! Although the only firewall that’s been truly breached is the fact that Daniel Littleton and Elizabeth Mitchell don’t mind singing over the din of distortion-aided electric strums now and again, the fact that their first record sounds like shoegazy dream-pop with all the extraneous instruments mixed out (or run backward, as in “Vacation”), and that they record for a highly credible indie label, ensures that nobody here gets mistaken for Indigo Girl and Boy or Peter, Paul Is Dead and Mary. This ain’t your dad’s folk music.
On Tales of Brave Ida, Mitchell (whose first group was a Brown University duo with Lisa Loeb; Ida is actually on “Stay” somewhere), does most of the singing in a fluty, reassuringly inexact soprano. Littleton, a former punk in Maryland’s highly rated Hated (and now concurrently Jenny Toomey’s partner in Liquorice, the successor to a project called Slack), either joins her helpfully or takes the lead (“Coupons,” “Accidents,” “Looking Through the Glass”) often enough to keep the textures variable and engaging. With a string bassist and cellist making occasional additions to the calm melodic processions, the song styles shift around, never settling into a standard format — but never quite escaping its sensitive borders, either. “Nick Drake” is a floating, nearly ambient piano/guitar instrumental and “Temping” has the wispy cool of jazz-pop, but “F. Boyfriend” slowly builds to a soaring, loud climax. In “Shotgun,” Mitchell doubles her voice prettily over crisp electric guitar suggestions; when Littleton adds his, it’s clear that Ida knows how to make minimal resources do a lot more than meets the ear.
Having added drummer Michael Littleton, Ida is unveiled as a trio on I Know About You, but percussion is not the crucial missing ingredient that explains the great leap forward of the band’s second album. Sticking to a gentle, understated but fully inhabited dynamic range and handsomely abetted by guest strings and bass (Rose Thomson of Babe the Blue OX), Mitchell’s cool, confident voice is more than agreeable; the subtle songs are as powerful for their sound as for their thoughtful content.
Continuing its artistic growth, Ida benefited from the addition of the multi-talented Karla Schickele (daughter of classical composer/gag artist Peter Schickele of P.D.Q. Bach fame) of the band Beekeeper. She appears on several tracks on Ten Small Paces, and her superb songwriting (“Poor Dumb Bird” and “Fallen Arrow” highlights), fluid electric bass and cool alto vocals add greater depth to this quiet album, recorded in a host of locations, from Annapolis to Brooklyn to Nantucket. Ten Small Paces, which combines covers of songs by Neil Young, Bill Monroe and Brian Eno with Littleton/Mitchell material, is an understated record that can be best understood as a transition toward the fuller-sounding band to come. Schickele’s “Poor Dumb Bird” was released as a 7-inch EP (33 rpm on one side, 45 on the other) with a excellent cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” and a surprisingly faithful cover of Prince’s “When U Were Mine,” sung by Littleton. Fun stuff for the fans, and an nice illustration of Ida’s myriad influences.
Ida subsequently signed to Capitol Records, but released nothing via the label. However, resulting studio time allowed the band to record a substantial quantity of material, which would be released over the next several years. Will You Find Me has Schickele as a permanent member, while Tara Jane O’Neill of Rodan contributes violin and Warren Defever of His Name Is Alive produced and played on the most fully fleshed-out Ida album to date. Mitchell and Littleton’s harmonies have rarely been better, and the new musicians add resonance and beauty. Songs like “Maybelle” and “Man in Mind” are positively radiant.
The same studio sessions that produced Will You Find Me also yielded The Braille Night, which suffers in comparison. The band sounds excellent, but the songs are less compelling. Lengthy, meandering pieces like “Blizzard of ’78” offer mainly atmosphere.
A host of secondary and side projects litter the Ida catalogue. The Losing True EP was released after Ida left Simple Machines and is notable for “Tiger Dare,” the first Schickele track under the Ida name. Mitchell and Littleton recorded a children’s album in 1999 called You Are My Flower, an early entry in the growing realm of indie rock for kids. Shhh…!, Defever’s chance to remix the remaining tracks and studio outtakes from the Will You Find Me / Braille Night sessions, is insignificant. Live at Carnegie Hall, Insound Tour Support Series, Vol. 11 is the most noteworthy of the band’s live albums. The 2000 release (of material recorded between 1997-1999) is slapdash but amazingly true to the actual experience of experiencing the band in concert, and features some revelatory cover tunes and surprising evidence of the band’s great sense of humor. Angel Hall is a 1999 live recording with Low, the Secret Stars and His Name is Alive issued to benefit the South Brooklyn Legal Services HIV Project.
Ida took a break while Littleton and Mitchell spent some time raising their daughter, Storey. Schickele launched a side project, which she named k. The first release was Those Girls, a split EP with Low. It features many of Schickele’s regular colleagues (O’Neill, Littleton, Mitchell and Ida Pearle). New Problems and Goldfish followed, both of them surprisingly wan in comparison to Schickele’s contributions to Ida’s records, indicating that she may thrive best in a collaborative band setting.
Heart Like a River marked Ida’s return to recording and touring in early 2005. It follows a now-familiar Ida pattern of airy Littleton/Mitchell harmonies (“Laurel Blues”), cool Schickele-sung chamber pop (“Honeyslide”) and moments of dissonance and blustery guitar (“599”). Parts of the album feel overly familiar, but it’s good to have the band back in circulation. Around the same time, Ida released a self-titled CD3 on Douglas Wolk’s Dark Beloved Cloud label: three otherwise unreleased tracks running a total of 18 minutes. “Wait” is almost a rondo, and all three songs are worthwhile additions to the Ida catalogue.