Recorded mostly at Levon Helm's studio, Lovers Prayers sounds looser and more immediate than any other Ida album.
Ida is exactly the sort of band that should be working with Levon Helm. Their previous six albums are all beautifully crafted pieces of pop music, all so well-constructed in their quiet. Indeed, they may be too well-constructed, too contained. But, for Lovers Prayers, Ida trekked out to Levon Helm's studio, and the country boy from the Band injected a loose feel into the band's songs, making them seem a little more spontaneous and, as a result, a little more immediate and heartfelt.
This new turn on their sound, often achieved through live in-studio cuts, makes for the band's best record to date. It manages to take their knack for quiet, subtle melodies and compelling narratives and amp them up by taking some of the over-thinking out of them. Good as their previous albums were, you could hear how Ida toiled over them. You could hear a push towards perfection that, in the end, hindered a lot of great songs.
On Lovers Prayer the band expand their sound. Ida has always had a knack for finding the beauty in hushed tones. And, unlike most bands, they can sustain a more somber mood without falling into a slack or sleepy mode. The title-track here is as basic as it gets, but the way the piano chords ring over each other suggest an expansion, and it fits the track perfectly as Daniel Littleton sings about the ever-darkening desert sky. The interplay of two guitars -- one taking the high notes, the other the low -- coupled with the faint hum of organ bolsters the internal feel of "Worried Mind Blues" as Elizabeth Mitchell and Karla Schickele harmonize an aching pine, singing "If you want me pretty baby, you got to let me know."
Like those songs, the rest of the album is full of perfect elements that never call attention to themselves. The melodies, the lyrics, the vocals, the fragile instrumentation -- not a one of them is weak, but none of them call too much attention to themselves either. And recording out in the woods, taking in the size of the space around them, the band stops micromanaging their songs and lets everything come together naturally. And with Helm's studio, and a newfound freedom, the band sounds more assured than ever. Their songs, which have always been driven by honest emotion, sound more believably open now that they are free of too much studio confinement. You can immediately sense the bitterness of "The Killers 1964". You heart sinks to hear "Weight of the Straw". The regret in "For Shame of Doing Wrong" is bone deep.
But Ida avoids letting these admittedly melancholy subjects drag the album down. Never are these songs self-pitying or melodramatic. Instead, these quiet, sad moments often become transcendent, almost comforting. By creating compositions that are simple, but deceptively deep, Ida successfully keeps what John Gardner would call the "narrative dream" going. The solitary, dust-covered stories contained in these songs come together to a wonderful hole, one that takes landscape and inner life and combines them in a unique and beautiful way. As a result, the one-hour running time doesn't feel overly long at all, even if the band never picks up the tempo. With Lovers Prayers, Ida shows us they don't need to speed up the beat, or turn up the volume, to get our attention and hold it.