There's pretty music (a sort of pleasant but ultimately bland endeavor) and then there's really pretty music (music that immediately changes the environment, making you stop and take notice). Thankfully, the Album Leaf is of the latter variety. Imagine, if you will, the most perfect hybrid of glitchy electronica, Mum-like innocence, and indie rock instrumentalism. Or think of it this way: take your favorite, say, Elliot Smith ballad, remove the vocals, and have it remixed by Boards of Canada. It's a combination of styles that seems so completely obvious and yet when you're pressed to think of examples of it being done this well, you'd be at a bit of a loss. There are bands like Mogwai, God Speed You Black Emperor!, Explosions in the Sky, and the like that have made instrumental music in this vein, but the Album Leaf seems much more concerned with melody and arrangement rather than concept or context than those bands ever have.
Tristezza guitarist Jimmy LaValle debuted the Album Leaf with 1999's An Orchestrated Rise to Fall. Mired by poor sound quality and indistinct melodies, the album lacked a certain necessary cohesion, but by the time LaValle released the next Album Leaf LP, 2001's One Day I'll Be on Time, he had hit his stride. This year's Seal Beach EP, strangely available only as a Spanish import through the excellent Acuarela label (don't worry, you can still get it from Amazon for less than $10) begins where One Day I'll Be on Time left off.
Opening with the stately "Malmo", LaValle uses the muffled crackling of a well-worn record together with minimalist piano and Four Tet-style beats to weave together an entirely enjoyable slice of melancholic, instrumental glitch-hop. Brian Eno-inspired synth tones and delicately plucked guitar add a melodic counterpart to the piano bed as the song beautifully coalesces into a moderately paced pop symphony. The arrangements are so well-articulated and structured that the whole affair comes across as very well thought out, which isn't usually a pre-requisite for inspired music, but it's welcome in this context.
"Brennivin" follows in the same style but with a bigger drum sound and with the piano taking more of a lead on the melody. It's like a sensitive DJ Shadow, or a stimulated Explosions in the Sky, but again, always held together with an acute understanding of pacing and structure. By the time the EP's title track announces itself cooingly with music box chimes and softly hummed synth beds, you'd be hard-pressed not to be seduced by LaValle's lovingly simple melodies and heartfelt warmth.
The EP's final two cuts, "Christiansands" and "One Minute", are more fully in the realm of instrumental indie rock than the more electronic minded openers, but all of the musical touchstones remain: a tempered pace, expert arrangements, and warm, almost loving melodies. The right vocalist would have a field day with these cuts, as they're just screaming out to be accompanied by voice, but what at first might seem like a deficiency, quickly becomes a strength, as the nakedness of the music gives it just the right touch of individuality and poignancy.
Jimmy LaValle has a beautifully original music project going here, and one can only hope that he has success with it. I would be shocked if LaValle wasn't pegged to record some soundtrack work in the near future, as the Seal Beach EP seems perfectly suited for just that. But in the mean time, listeners should have no problems conjuring up their own inspired imagery to this heartbreakingly elegant music.