What makes a compelling Album Leaf record? Jimmy LaValle’s music has always been best suited to working in tandem with an outside element — say, vocals from a songwriter like Mark Kozelek or being accompanied by the visuals of a subtle horror film. Without such an X-factor, his ambient work (anything post-The Locust, really) can easily fall into a trap of being too dependable, too calm, too consistent. It’s become both a strength and a weakness. God knows there’s enough adventurous yet awful music out there, so it’s always good to have an artist who lives up to the Old Reliable superlative. It’s good to know there’s never been a terrible Album Leaf LP.
There have been several slight ones, however, and that makes it increasingly hard for his electronic/IDM textures to stand out to the average listener. The hiss of reverse-fed cymbals and the twinkle of his Rhodes piano never tire on The Album Leaf’s sixth LP, Between Waves, but they don’t always offer much excitement either. Opening tracks “False Dawn” and “Glimmering Lights” share the same heartbeat — boom/clap and so on, with a muted purr underneath — that, while pleasant, also tends to coast. Think of a leisurely takeoff and landing on a two-hour commercial flight; not too long and not too short. Think of the tiny overhead fan gently blowing air that keeps you halfway between sleep and consciousness. Between Waves delivers that same kind of soothing yet neutral sensation.
Luckily, it also delivers some left turns here and there that stand out simply by virtue of being different. Although the three songs to feature LaValle’s glassy vocals — “New Soul”, “Never Far”, and the title track — drag due to the lyrics’ yawning New Age-isms, “Back to the Start” and “Wandering Still” achieve true ascension thanks to a burst of courtly trumpet. When the brass, synthesized or otherwise, announces itself on both cuts, the spirit lifts for a moment out of its otherwise steady autopilot. That’s especially true of the latter, which starts off with an almost discordant motor hum and transmutes into something beautiful. Likewise, penultimate track “Lost In the Fog” reaches catharsis through a ceaseless crescendo. At first, the digitized scratches, live drums, and pulsing guitar build an arrangement that grooves with the power to brighten the room. But each subsequent instrument adds a thickening layer of melancholia: Rhodes piano first, then a swell of strings, then the comedown of the whole damn thing. By the time its five minutes have ended, the entire emotional gauntlet has been run.
Moments like these — of danceability escalating to panic, to mourning, to resolution — end up bucking the album’s title, not by trying to safely maneuver between the waves, but by actually embracing them. They ride the saltwater’s crest, its crash, and its ultimate dissolution on the shore. Between the Waves could use just a little more of that rise-and-fall quality.
Essential Tracks: “Back to the Start”, “Wandering Still”, and “Lost In the Fog”