The Album Leaf: In a Safe Place

[21 June 2004]

By Lee Henderson

Jimmy LaValle from the band Tristeza goes to Iceland and becomes Icelandic, calls himself the Album Leaf. What a beautiful thing is modern music that an American pop musician has become so indebted to the strange, spectral sonic sounds of such a distant, harrowing land half-covered in ice and tundra and alcoholics. For every erratic, nonsensical nixing of a cultural product via globalism, we also receive unexpected little gifts like this one, where the sons of the dominant voice (i.e., American) choose to pay tribute to the poetic murmur of the so-called “other”. In the case of In a Safe Place (surely a reference to the arid, lowly populated landscape where he recorded the album), LaValle has adopted the charming guileless ambient pop of Iceland’s Mum, the wishy-washy guitar crescendos of Sigur Ros, and so on (Bjork). Considering the disappointing attempt Mum has made at a darker, more lugubrious and European sound on their very newest record, the Album Leaf has even transcended his arctic influences.

The album is stitched together so finely, the songs hardly distinguish themselves from the overall pace, which is slow and summery, and the constructions, which vary between listless nowheresville ambience and introverted pop melodies. To say that the album resembles an expensive Mulholland Drive garden, the kind meticulously landscaped by medium-wage potheads and botany fetishists, is to say that the organic elements are the most precise. Every guitar chord is planted in just the right place to shine with prismatic luster on the senses. Meanwhile, the digitalia is left to grow wild, tangling itself like wire and plastic and concrete slabs littered across the soundscape. For LaValle, the laptop brings the chaos we normally expect from nature, while he form-fits nature to the conceptual.

“Window” opens the album as gently as a pane of glass fogged by breath. The record is full of moments as evanescent as this one. It’s the soft blending of details, from track to track that make the album feel less like a series of songs but an uninterrupted fantasy, shaded of hothouse color. Perhaps it’s in the coloration that the music begins to feel like a landscape more than a rock ‘n’ roll extrapolation. Where Greg Davis’s newest album Curling Pond Woods suggests a scene from rural Vermont, catching ambient cloud-drift and plucky guitar from the forests and wetlands, LaValle found his influence in the vast, spiritually open lands of Iceland, green grass forever, punctuated by rock. You can see the arc of the world in Iceland. You can hear it in the Album Leaf. But the difference between this and Sigur Ros is that LaValle’s landscape is much more organized. It’s a fabrication of Iceland, rather than a direct conversation. Sigur Ros are in tune with the lurch and flow of the earth. Mum float across the cold skies beside migrating birds. The Album Leaf is a representation of both these subjects, but not a part of them. That’s okay. The record is an amazing example of what an outsider can introduce to the performative styles of an outside world through respectful imitation.

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