Ambient Motion


November 10, 2006


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 that day."

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."