[2 February 2010]
There’s something sad and distant about A Chorus of Storytellers. It’s a relic of another time, a beautiful bit of otherworldly majesty that belongs in a time when albums were entities of only themselves, when we were more likely to pick it off a rack than click a button to buy it. It’s a piece of work that deserves to be heard front to back, and not found on someone’s list of “the first 15 songs my iPod randomly picked”.
The Album Leaf has never really existed in a world where hit singles are a measure of quality, and despite a new album that could accurately be described as the most accessible one that LaValle has ever put together, A Chorus of Storytellers is no different. It’s not that this is a surprise; it’s more a matter of appreciation for an album that forces its listener to sit down and listen for a little less than an hour. It is more than a collection of songs. It has an arc that feels like a slowly-developing weather pattern. Partial clouds to light rain and back again.
While the decidedly middle-of-the-road mood of A Chorus of Storytellers won’t get anyone fired up, though, the way that mood is constructed is the album’s primary appeal. In any given track, layer upon layer of sound is piled into the mix until it becomes this mélange of swirling, swooping melodies and textures. Much of the album was recorded with LaValle’s touring band, making A Chorus of Storytellers more like a band effort than anything ever before released under the name. Still, the trajectory of the layers—emphasized, no doubt, by the mixing efforts of Sigur Ros’ Jón “Biggi” Birgisson—is a singular one. LaValle is quite clearly steering the effort, even if he has more help getting to where he’s going than on any other disc so far.
Only four of the album’s 11 songs feature vocals, and the first two, at least, somehow don’t stand apart from the instrumentals. Rather than appearing at the front of the mix, the vocals fade in the same way many of the instruments do, sitting alongside them, couched in harmony, reverb, and delay. “There Is a Wind” is the first to feature vocals at all, and they’re so subtly ushered in as to nearly avoid notice altogether. Even on a thematic level, LaValle (along with Pall Jenkins of Black Heart Procession) has made an effort to evoke the same mood with the words that he so effectively does with the music. “I wish we could have stayed / But this wind takes us away,” he writes, bringing the rest of us into his pleasantly idyllic little world.
The pair of vocal tracks toward the end of the album threatens to derail the entire thing, however. “We Are” and “Almost There” are the most “band-like” songs on the album, both of them featuring clearly discernible drum and bass lines played by an actual drummer and an actual bassist, and they could almost pass for mid-tempo rock ‘n’ roll tunes if their washes of synthesizers and string instruments were electric guitars and pianos. Sure, the same effects-laden vocals sing over the top of both of these tracks, but their insistence on verses and choruses and beats point in a direction the Album Leaf has never gone before.
Perhaps these tracks are the future of the Album Leaf; perhaps they point to a direction in which LaValle can thrive in a world dominated by 30-second clips. This would certainly make sense from the standpoint of wanting to continue the buildup of an audience, but it’s an approach that tears down much of what makes the rest of the album so appealing: its patience, its near-ambience, its inhabitance of its own lovely little world. When “Tied Knots” closes the album, following those two songs, it’s like being able to exhale. It’s the beauty of “Summer Fog” and the empty space of “Within Dreams” that we’ll remember from this album, not the crunchy, propulsive beat of “We Are”, or even the almost incidental fiddle of “Almost There”.
Despite the attention these two tracks court, most of A Chorus of Storytellers does a fine job of remembering what makes the Album Leaf powerful and vital, and it establishes itself as one of the more majestic works of the year so far, and likely to come. Until LaValle can fully commit to his more traditional songwriting urges, he would do well to remember that it is that majesty that sets the Album Leaf apart. The songs will, and should, remain little more than a distraction.