A friend of mine says this about Ida: “They’re terrible. I love them as people, but their lyrics and style just make me cringe.” The irony is that he finds Elizabeth Mitchell’s voice transporting, grainy, and warm enough to resurrect an old Dolly Parton cut, so sometimes he’s compelled to see them anyway, then spends a lot of time fidgeting in between the cover tunes. Ida, longtime NYC college favorites who’ve finally seized critical notice with their new Will You Find Me, inspire a lot of mixed emotions. After all, they’ve dedicated themselves, heart and soul, to the redemption of ickiness. The songs do nothing but slowly unfurl, with gently picked Fender notes, elongated violin, shuffled drums, and foreboding Wurlitzer. When they played the Knitting Factory August 27, Mitchell, her husband Daniel Littleton, and bassist-pianist Karla Schickele practically made sex faces with their folkie Pentecostal harmonies. And the verse! “Don’t answer with a word/Only with your eyes”; “I could watch you sleep for hours.”
But it’s complicated. That “answer . . . only with your eyes” hook, for instance, part of “Maybelle”—Ida’s set opener these days—is lifted from the Carter Family song “Are You Tired of Me My Darling.” (Ida redo the original on an Insound.com-sponsored disc of stray appearances, Live at Carnegie Hall, prefacing it with a Cheap Trick joke.) So it ain’t corny; it’s vintage. Named after a friend’s grandma, this band reveres tradition without being slaves to it, and that tradition includes Prince covers. “Maybelle,” like the album as a whole, walks a sonic tightrope, too. Money from Capitol, which backed out after Gary Gersh was canned, went to a no-fuzz production that recalls the Robert Fripp-helmed Roches debut. Ida layer on the sap-o-riffics, but each cloying element is separated out, kept personal. There’s room for little surprises, like the subtle freak-out built into the end of “Shrug.” Can you be sentimental and never schmaltzy? Quite a goal.
I wonder if Littleton and Mitchell ever get sick of their own preciousness. On their last real album, 1997’s Ten Small Paces, they practically took the woolly stuff out of the mix, favoring covers (Neil Young, Secret Stars, Bill Monroe, a niftily homespun Brian Eno), tunes by the recently arrived Schickele, who’s blunt by comparison, and the unprecedentedly sharp-tongued “Purely Coincidental.” While Capitol kept them in limbo, they did an album in tandem with Retsin, barely contributing any new originals, then an album of children’s songs: Mitchell could pursue a second career singing the likes of “Little Sack of Sugar” and “Pony Boy.” The two also used the interim to get married: Friends from other bands recorded a Hitched! CD for the occasion. Keeping on in this vein, Ida might have stayed folkish and indie, sheepishly good-natured sorts. Their passion for emotional vagueness relegated to the occasional, fully realized, American Music Club-type drama—e.g., “Temping” and “Backburner” on earlier albums.
Instead, building on yet another stopgap, the EP Losing True, they’ve inflated everything that was irritating about them—and made their first memorable album. Absurdities become calling cards when the material is strong enough. “Down On Your Back” hits that weary Radiohead note, “This Water” and “Man in Mind” are P.J. Harveyish Schickele successes, “The Radiator” and “Georgia” are maple syrup epiphanies. Put it this way: I’ll always smirk at “When you need it/I’m a faucet” in “Turn Me On” (way to stay on metaphor), and Littleton still sings like some caricature of the feminist man. But balanced off churning guitar, tilted bassline, and noise bubbles, there’s a presence to the song, striking enough to cinch a concert, and that’s a caution. Sure, artists who prefer blurry photographs to vivid tableaux are obsessed with an asocial illusion. Schmaltz is healthier: Reba McEntire’s a more worthy vessel for Maybelle’s angst. Still, Ida have mastered an art-house formalism as escapist as anything in Adult Contemporary, Americana, or Smooth Jazz. And that’s a contribution, if not one the studious Knit crowd would have happily conceded.
For a different sort of modern love, I’d suggest another local band (mostly transplanted from Athens, Georgia), younger and less adept than Ida but glowingly mean-spirited. The Mendoza Line play whimsical jangle rock that invokes Belle and Sebastian, with a singer named Timothy Bracy who mumbles under his breath. The albums—there are four of them—have come to feature a liner-note narrative with the glazed formality of McSweeney’s or The Onion, and a band member alone on the cover: Employee of the Month. On We’re All in This Alone, it’s Shannon McArdle, whose newfound songwriting and vocal presence balances the gibes of Bracy and Peter Hoffman in a passive-aggressive battle of the sexes. First line: “You’ve only one job and it’s not to annoy me.” Summary title: “Yoko’s in the Band.” Wooze-punk worthy of Rough Trade 1980: Margaret Maurice’s “Idiot Heart.” Slogan: “I’ve been leaning on morals too long.” If Ida pursue art, for better or worse, Mendoza Line are art students matching hang-ups in a bar that’ll get written up next week. Scum, rising to the top. Isn’t it romantic?