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Intense yet muted Ida starts MFA series

If silence is color, Ida is a rock music rainbow. The New York band's palette doesn't include, say, the angry black of a searing guitar solo. On Ida's new album, ''Heart Like a River" -- in stores Feb. 22 -- the wait between notes flushes 10 shades of red, as if from the sheer possibility of all that open space. Fuzz fades into hushed electric blue. Words stretch out with such languor and tranquility that the singer's breath itself sounds lit from within -- flecked with golden bells and mossy cello and plain white piano.

There's no explaining the power of Ida's delicate intensity, which is almost counter-intuitive. The music's textures are minimalist and complicated, soothing and adventurous, understated and fierce -- and as riveting to a certain sort of music lover as a noisy anthem is for fans of arena rock. It's a strange refuge for the former punk musician Daniel Littleton, pop songstress Elizabeth Mitchell, and alt-rock bassist Karla Schickele -- the three core members of Ida, which kicks off Boston's Museum of Fine Arts 2005 concert series tomorrow.

''It's not so much that we're retreating from the form," says Littleton, who formed Ida in 1992 with Mitchell, his wife as well as his musical partner. ''We wanted to strip it down to an elemental form, to talk about simple objects or a mundane activity and make it essential."

Ida is often, and only partly accurately, described as part of the slowcore movement alongside such bands as Idaho, Codeine, Bedhead, and Low. But where Low's music has rarely risen above a whisper, Ida takes its haunted moods and stately tempos into radiant, cathartic territory. This is, after all, a band that performed Prince's entire ''Dirty Mind" album start to finish one New Year's Eve, a band that's songjacked everyone from Brian Eno to Dolly Parton and for a few misguided years worked under the auspices of a major record label that truly believed Ida would become the new Fleetwood Mac. If only they had written some normal pop songs.

''We were very excited about making records with budgets," Littleton explains of the band's 1997 signing to Capitol Records, which never released an Ida album. ''We thought we could do whatever we wanted and they would pay for it. I could spin it a few different ways. The gist is there was disappointment."

Jenny Toomey, a musician, activist, and founder of Ida's former record label Simple Machines, says that the late '90s were indeed years of great upheaval, but also great creativity, for Ida.

''It was a painful time with lots of second-guessing, like, 'Do we need a more professional-sounding drumer?' " Toomey says. ''But evolution happens during periods of chaos. There was incredible growth."

Ida recorded two discs worth of material in 1997 and 1998. ''Will You Find Me" was ultimately put out by the indie label Tiger Style in 1999; ''The Braille Night," which featured songs recorded during the same Capitol sessions, followed in 2001. Ida's new album, for Polyvinyl, was -- ironically -- inspired by the very same '70s music scene that their onetime corporate benefactors had hoped would spark a mellow million-seller. Sonically, ''Heart Like a River" is indeed the sort of lovely, earthy, singer-songwriter affair that Littleton, Mitchell, and Schickele had been devouring while writing and recording their seventh disc.

''We wanted it to have a spirit of looseness like you hear in Crazy Horse or 'Tapestry' or Dylan, where it feels like people are playing at the same time in a room," says Littleton.

But the source for the album's title reveals much about the messy entanglements that bubble beneath Ida's blissful harmonies and deceptively uncluttered sound.

''There's a great scene in [the John Cassavetes film] 'Love Streams,' " Littleton says, ''where Gena Rowlands's character is seeing a psychotherapist because her marriage is breaking up, and she says, 'I think love is a stream that doesn't end.' And he says, 'You're wrong. Get over this.' "

Littleton and Mitchell, who married in 1999, have a 3-year-old daughter, Storey, and the pragmatic limitations imposed by family life have actually worked like a tonic on the pair's musical life. Their vastly restricted time on stages and in studios has heightened their awareness, Littleton says, of just how precious it is. After a long touring hiatus they're more focused as players, he says, and their shows are that much more vivid and consuming for everyone involved -- which only enhances Ida's appeal for the MFA's concert series.

''The kind of intimacy they're able to project, the personality of their performances, is really attractive for us," says Dan Hirsch, the museum's new concert programmer. ''The focus at the museum is on listening, and Ida is one of those bands you want to sit down with and be drawn in by."

Ida will be joined in Boston by violinist Jean Cook, who also sings, and drummer Ruth Keating, who doubles on melodica and harmonica. The band's criteria for collaborators -- the ranks of which have swelled to as many as 17 -- explains a lot about the band's place in the pantheon of underground rock innovators.

''It develops out of camaraderie," Littleton says. ''We build relationships with musicians who prize enthusiasm and improvisation and can find spaces within the structure of a song. Space for things to be free and indeterminate and open."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com 

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