What do you value more, rhythm or melody? If it’s the former, well, good, me too — that’s why I love rock ‘n’ roll so much. But some folks prefer the latter, and if you are such a folk, you just might learn to cherish the Brooklyn-based trio Ida, if you haven’t done so already. On their sixth album, Heart Like a River, Ida resembles a wimpier version of Yo La Tengo: Each band is New York City-identified, comprised of three vocalists, includes a married couple that occasionally lets the third wheel take the mike, and so on. Like Summer Sun, Heart Like a River is suffused with beautiful, gently sung melodies. But there’s a crucial difference: Summer Sun actually has songs on it.
Let me clarify. Of course Heart Like a River has “songs” — eleven of ’em, in fact, starting with “Laurel Blues” and ending with “Forgive.” But Ida doesn’t write hooks or bridges or even choruses into most of them. They’re content to let their melodies meander linearly along for four, five, six minutes. Heart Like a River is an album of tone, not a feast of songwriting prowess. True, oftentimes that tone — established by clean electric guitar lines, hushed vocals and a moderately slow tempo — results in truly gorgeous music. But because the “songs” are so melodically similar that they wash together, forming one hour-long block of consistently pretty music. The album is so consistently pretty, in fact, it becomes almost dull.
Daniel Littleton may not be able to sing a lick, but his wife, Elizabeth Mitchell, has a lovely, slightly husky voice. That voice is one of the few sounds on the album worth attending: the lyrics are blah, the song structures are same-y and unexciting, and the melodies, although lovely, fall under the heading “You Heard One, You Heard ‘Em All” (exceptions: guitar rave-up “599” and third member Karla Schickele’s two compositions, each poppier than the rest of the album). Heart Like a River is best enjoyed as pleasant ambience, background noise. Tone albums are like that.