I first heard Ida in the summer of 1997. My good friend Alex Madara, now sadly deceased and often missed, called me one afternoon.
“What are you doing right now?”
“Great. I’ll be by in a few minutes. I have a song to play for you.”
He came by, I got in the car, and he simply said, “Just listen”. Alex then proceeded to drive along the backroads of southwestern Connecticut, loudly playing “95 North” from Ida’s 1996 release, I Know About You. We didn’t speak at all. That song ended and he skipped to “Little Things” and then “Tellings”. I ordered the record later that evening and played it practically daily for the next several months. It managed to speak to that particular time for me, when my life was in a state of flux. I was in my mid-20s, and I was realizing that not all of the people in my life would remain there forever: some I would discard and others would discard me. Ida’s songs fed this all back to me, revealing small but profound truths in their lyrics. They put some emotions into words for me, and made me feel less alone in my disappointment.
I veer away from the pretense of an objective review to illustrate my belief that Ida are a band whose music is so heartfelt and emotional that it can be placed in a listener’s personal memory and kept there, never really existing outside of a particular time. I never play I Know About You anymore, unless I want to introduce the band to a possible new listener. This admission is somewhat large for me, as I wholeheartedly agree with Nick Hornby when he claims that those who love music because it reminds them of a particular place or time don’t really care about music. It should transcend.
Heart Like a River is standard Ida fare: it is pretty and well-arranged and heart-wrenching. No less than thirteen instruments appear throughout, and the core and extended band delicately keep each note in place. The voices of Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton should be heard by the larger public, even if they have a habit of dragging too many end syllables out to showcase their abilities. They are professionals, consistently good at what they do. This record finds them even steadier than usual, if that is even possible. Compared to a like-minded band like Low, what Ida does differently is spread the restrained energy out to each note. This is even-keeled stuff, the highs coming so slowly as to barely show any distinction, yet still somehow noticeable as highs. It is why the band deservedly elicits the word “hypnotic” from critics and fans.
Because of the subtlety of the music, the words are highlighted, which is no doubt the intent. “Laurel Blues”, the opening track, begins with the lines:
“Keeping it to yourself, /
Away from the ones who could help, / Leaving only a reflection of the anger / That you could not claim.”
The CD continues in this vein, with lyrics that speak honestly of relationships, and not just those that are crumbling. They also tackle more grown-up concerns: we’ve all heard the love-lost songs, but Ida sings the I’m-sticking-with-you-but-I’m-not-always-happy songs. Some lyrics can be pedestrian, but others may just call it simple (note: not “simplistic”). The song “Mine” rhymes the title word over and over, sometimes with itself. “The Details” claims “Baby, you just hurt yourself, / And you hurt me, too”, which begs the question: Well, which is it? Does he hurt the both of you, or just himself?
Karla Schickele’s two contributions should also be noted. “What Can I Do” is the saddest song on a record of melancholy. “You want her, / You want me, too, / You’ll get back to me, / When you’ve thought it through”. The narrator sounds hapless at first, and then simply human. Schickele’s “Honeyslide”, by contrast, adds the most noise. Cello bursts in—a surprise on an otherwise quiet record. The string arrangement on this song is gorgeous: a cross between the repetition of Steve Reich and the emotion of Tosca Tango Orchestra.
Elsewhere, “Sundown” should be heard for the perfect slow building of a powerful song. “Late Blues”, oddly, echoes one of Prince’s lesser-known gems, “Joy In Repetition”.
Heart Like a River will be a godsend to anyone experiencing disillusionment in a current or recently dissolved romantic relationship. For those of us in the lucky boat of not obsessing about love at this particular juncture in their lives, perhaps now is the time for us to listen to Ida, before we associate it too strongly with loss. That way, the record can be pulled out through the years without ghost pangs of pain.