PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Album Leaf: A Chorus of Storytellers

THE ALBUM LEAF / Photo: Bil Zelman

While the decidedly middle-of-the-road mood of A Chorus of Storytellers won't get anyone fired up, the way that mood is constructed is the album's primary appeal.

The Album Leaf

A Chorus of Storytellers

Contributors: Jón Birgisson, Pall Jenkins
Label: Sub Pop
UK Release Date: 2010-02-01
US Release Date: 2010-02-02
Artist Website

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.