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The Black Dog inspires creativity -- its high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and spacious tables encourage daydreaming, journaling, doodling and other precursors to art making.


Twin Town High (vol. 8)

Your Locally Grown Alternative Newspaper

Ida: The Path Less Traveled
Wednesday 01 October @ 13:13:53
Musicby Rob van Alstyne

New York City avant-garde folk mainstays Ida have crafted beguilingly intimate tunes for nearly a dozen years. Formed around the core of Daniel Littleton (vocals/keyboards/guitar) and Elizabeth Mitchell (vocals/keyboards/guitar), the pair began working together shortly after graduating from Brown University, surfacing with their minimalist debut, Tales of Brave Ida, in 1994.

The drone-heavy acoustic record only hinted at the melodic riches yet to come from the group and its future host of collaborators. The years since have seen many changes for Ida both onstage (the group added a third songwriter in 1997, bassist/vocalist Karla Schickle, and have continuously expanded and refined their once rudimentary sound) and off (Littleton and Mitchell wed in 1999 and recently gave birth to their first child).

Littleton and Mitchell’s beautiful harmonizing (whether coyly whispering to one another or roaring in tandem) has always been the trump card of Ida’s sound, whether the band is trying their hands at sensual sophisticated R & B (“Shrug” from 2000’s landmark album Will You Find Me?) or shoegazing electric dream-pop (“Dream Date” from 1997’s odds ’n’ sods collection Ten Small Paces). Frequently singing in unison, Littleton and Mitchell have classically beautiful voices, altogether too pretty to be readily classified alongside the typically more ragged pipes of their indie-rock brethren.

Throw Schickle’s rainy day alto into the mix (and baroque odd time signature compositions) and Ida can easily claim to effectively render a more diverse array of sounds and moods on record than nearly all their contemporaries (they’re probably the only band on record to have done entire tribute nights to both Prince and Neil Young at different points in their career).

Littleton credits the back and forth creative volleying of three independent songwriters with driving the band constantly forward. “Whenever Liz or Karla brings me a song that I’m crazy about, I feel like I don’t know anything,” explains Littleton via telephone from his home. “It’s just so exciting, it ups the ante and raises the bar. You feel like you have to dig deeper and try so much harder just to even write — and that can’t be a bad thing.”

The latest permutation of Littleton’s ever-expanding muse is Nanang Tatang, a home recorded electronic side-project with Mitchell on vocals that recently released their debut, Muki. The album, a collection of downtempo electro-coffeehouse tunes, feels like the logical extension of the more atmospheric and ornate numbers that were turning up on the last few Ida records. Although occasionally a little too aimless, the songs hit their mark more often than not, making space for themselves alongside latter day Everything But the Girl records as one of the few entities seated at the ‘intelligent lyric driven electro-music for adults’ table.

Already back to working on Ida full-throttle, the band is currently in the midst of recording its sixth proper record. In between Ida has been managing to line up a few gigs around the country at unconventional venues (the band plays art galleries as frequently as bars) and often with some civic purpose in mind (the group has played numerous benefits in the past for causes ranging from low power radio to HIV patient outreach to film restoration projects).

As a key member in one of the more lyrically sophisticated and intellectually bent groups at the forefront of independent music, Littleton has clearly thought extensively about the political implications of his band’s work.

“I think it’s a pretty complex issue,” admits Littleton.

“I definitely feel like it’s less interesting to be proselytizing and didactic about your views, but at the same time in the climate that we live right now it feels so inspiring to see people be gutsy about what they really think about things. I have maybe slightly paranoid leanings in my thinking, but it’s pretty hard not to feel like there has been this systematic silencing of opinion that has been going on for awhile — it’s pretty fucking creepy. I keep on thinking more and more about bands I loved growing up, like the Minutemen and what they used to do at their shows, and that keeps inspiring me. So lately I’ve found myself doing solo shows where I’ve been seeking out songs that feel like protest songs, but more so, feel like great songs.

"And then I just keep thinking how context can change the way you interpret a song. I’ve been singing ‘Shipbuilding’ at shows, that Elvis Costello song, and it’s such an amazing song to me. Because it puts those kind of political questions into really human terms, it doesn’t hammer you over the head with a reductionist argument. It just kind of asks hard questions and personalizes them, and that seems to me like a harder thing to do.”

Those same non-reductionist choices are at work in the core of Littleton’s own uncompromising songwriting.

“I feel like there’s still these radical gestures that are there to be made that get beyond needing to identify yourself in a certain way,” explains Littleton.

“For me, I’ve felt kind of strongly about not wanting to write about being Asian-American in this overt way. In another way, it’s a kind of political choice for me. I’m interested in putting the complexity of my emotional life or my intellectual curiosities first, and trying to let that story be told. Having that be what I privilege instead of needing to toot a certain horn.”

As Ida soldier on, making bold choices and seeking new ways to reinvent the music-making wheel, it’s clear Littleton’s intense personal commitment to the music is in no danger of fading.

“I started being in bands when I was 13,” says Littleton.

“And I’m 34 now and I don’t feel at all like I could even possibly think of stopping. It just feels like there’s still so much that I don’t know about and that I want to learn. I still get so much pleasure out of the process of doing things—I’ve experienced people liking it and people not liking it—it doesn’t matter. The work isn’t contingent on that, it’s contingent on the gift of a creative process to get to share with people. Having done it this long and still feeling so committed to it [being a musician] is just the way that I know how to be in the world. It’s not really divisible from life as I know it.”

Ida plays Wed., Oct. 8, at the Weisman Art Museum with Fred Thomas (of the band Saturday Looks Good to Me). 8 p.m. All-Ages.. Tickets are $8 for the general public and $6 for WAM members, students, and seniors. 333 E. River Road, Mpls. 612-625-9494.

Check out the online version of this story at http://www.pulsetc.com to download the mp3 “Blizzard of ‘78”off of Ida’s most recent release, 2001’s
The Braille Night.

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