It's never easy for a rock critic to write about ambient music, or to say
why the work of one particular artist (say, Brian Eno) is vastly preferable
to another (New Age schlockmeister Jean-Michel Jarre, for example). Much of
it comes down to feel: Some music moves you emotionally, and some doesn't.
Jimmy LaValle, who issues his recordings under the name the Album Leaf,
makes ambient music that moves me.
"There's definitely feeling behind the music; to make an ambient record,
it's not just putting a sound on each track for five minutes on each track,"
LaValle says. "There are definitely more things that go into it -- there is
emotion or expression behind it. It's kind of vulnerable when you look at it
that way, because you can think of these artists as being emotional and
really caring about what that is. It's such spacious music, that it's more
vulnerable than your classic-rock band or some group screaming about
breaking up with a girlfriend. That's pretty vulnerable, but it seems that
ambient artists, because of the moodiness of the music, well, they're just
more susceptible to people really trying to dissect what they do."
The San Diego-based musician has actually done a lot of different things
during a busy career as an underground musician, working with the post-rock
band Tristeza; noise-rockers the Locust; the punk-funk group GoGoGo Airheart
and the hard-core band the Black Heart Procession. But the Album Leaf is
clearly the project nearest and dearest to his heart. LaValle has issued
four albums under the moniker to date, including the recent "Into the Blue
Again" on Sub Pop Records, and he's been building a growing following ever
since the Album Leaf (which expands to a quartet or quintet for live
performances, with a drummer, a guitarist/keyboardist or two and a
multi-instrumentalist) was tapped to open for kindred spirits Sigur Ros on
tour in 2001.
"I'm pretty much always recording something -- any kind of idea or
whatever," LaValle says. "I'll just throw it down, and sometimes it gets
buried, and sometimes it gets worked on. Sometimes, it all gets finished
LaValle recorded much of "Into the Blue Again" outside Seattle, but he
traveled to Iceland to mix the disc at Sigur Ros' home studio. "The main
reason that I like to work there is Birgir Jon Birgisson. He's basically the
engineer of the studio, and he's the one who recorded all of my last record
['In a Safe Place,' 2004]. He's really good at my music -- he has the ear
for it, and really great ears in general -- and the [mixing] board there is
really, really nice, with cool EQs and a good tone. If you're a studio geek
then those kinds of things appeal to you. Plus, there's something special
just about being in Reykjavik.
"I'm definitely influenced by my surroundings. Iceland puts you in a
state of mind, and I guess it's a blissful state -- a clear-headed state
where you take time to really think about stuff. The whole country is one of
the most relaxed countries I've ever been to. They procrastinate about
everything, and nothing ever gets done!" [Laughs.]
The songs on "Into the Blue Again" don't mark much of a departure from
earlier Album Leaf recordings: As in the past, LaValle's hushed vocals are
often hidden in lush mixes of keyboard drones, percolating electronic
rhythms, slowly unfolding piano and violin parts and an evocative swirl of
sound that is partly the result of samples of the sounds in the world around
him. "I use all kinds of weird stuff: cars driving by, planes going
overhead, whatever. My thought process behind these things is that if a song
was written when it was raining, the rain should be recorded as well,
because it was part of the inspiration for that song."
The fanzine press has been less enthusiastic about "Into the Blue Again"
than it was on the Album Leaf's earlier albums, but to this listener, the
disc is as strong as anything LaValle has recorded, and much of the
criticism that the music isn't a departure from earlier sounds can be
attributed to the aforementioned difficulties in saying exactly what is that
makes a piece of ambient music appealing.
"It's really sad to say, but I'm kind of looking ahead to the next
record, because some of the reviews I've gotten basically said, 'This is
great! It's more of the same thing, but it's great!' It never really
affected me before, but now I'm kind of thinking about what new thing I can
do or incorporate -- different songs, different feels -- that would be
ultimate depth. It's all about the imagery in the pieces to me, and anything
that can make me try to give the listener a new experience -- to feel
something different -- well, that's a good thing, because that's what my
music and ambient music in general is about."