Jimmy LaValle's mostly instrumental outfit returns with another collection of moody, ethereal soundscapes.
Jimmy LaValle started the Album Leaf as a one-man side project in the late ‘90s, sort of a busman’s holiday from his gig as a guitarist for California post-rock band Tristeza. Eventually, a few things changed: the Album Leaf became LaValle’s full-time project, and he began incorporating more musicians, creating more of an actual “band". In a way, the mostly instrumental, slightly melancholic feel of the music make it seem like a somewhat solitary endeavor, but the musicians that make up the Album Leaf give the proceedings a warmth and clarity that have helped craft the beauty of their latest album, Between Waves.
The thing is, while the album has a low-key sound, there’s an insistent undercurrent. The melodies, the lush, moody keyboards, the heavily syncopated drumming -- it gets in there. Like a lot of (mostly) instrumental music, it works well as reading music, and while I would occasionally find myself listening on headphones on the train while reading, a riff or beat would grab my attention, causing me to play it back, repeatedly. That’s the secret power of Between Waves -- on the surface, it appears innocuous, but it can often be gorgeous and damn near impossible to get out of your brain.
Combining shimmering production with the obvious influences of ambient and krautrock, Between Waves kicks off with “False Dawn", as a simple beat lays the groundwork for clean lines of melody and a gradual buildup of interlocking riffs. Other songs follow the same basic template, incorporating a combination of old and new sounds: crisp production is paired up with retro drum machine patches and ‘80s-era synths, but never in an overly nostalgic or satirical manner. Brian Eno soundscapes live comfortably alongside timeless techno hooks reminiscent of Thomas Dolby.
It may be a primarily instrumental album, but lyrics eventually make their way in by the third track, the leisurely-paced “New Soul". Like a lot of the music, the lyrics live comfortably within the arrangements and never appear fussy or rushed. “There / Beyond the sun / I wait / Here / Inside your life / I stay.” LaValle sings of isolation, but the distance appears to be physical and not emotional. The vocals almost act as solely another instrument and not necessarily a narrative force. They float above the music like some ethereal solo.
The warmth and comfort is occasionally jarred by a sense of foreboding, as “Wandering Still” creeps in like early Peter Gabriel -- the sparse arrangement evokes a dark atmosphere. But eventually the sun rises and sweeping melodies take over, accompanied by keening trumpet lines. This sort of dark/light dichotomy serves them well in other areas, too: “Lost in the Fog” begins with a quacking, primitive beat from some electronic swamp, but it’s soon accompanied by a standard acoustic drum kit, dramatic keyboard and horn flourishes and chiming guitar leads, fleshing out the arrangement in a leisurely manner while never losing sight of the intricate, funky rhythmic textures. LaValle and his band have found a way to be a tight musical combo that embraces rhythms and organic instruments while incorporating just the right amount of technology.
The album closes with the downbeat title track, with a simple, synthetic drum beat leading the way, combining with simple synth melodies for an otherworldly feel that sounds like Depeche Mode without all the extra baggage. “Between waves / You take my breath,” go the lyrics. Again, the vocals probably don’t require a lot of analysis; they’re just another instrument that contributes to an ethereal soundscape and an album that is sure to get better with every listen.