The Album Leaf – Between Waves (Relapse Records, 2016)
The Album Leaf is the project of Jimmy LaValle who has included a rotating cast of musicians both in studio and in live performances throughout the project’s 18 years. Further, the project has been closely associated with Sigur Rós since the band are fans of The Album Leaf and have allowed LaValle to use their studio in Iceland to record many of the project’s albums. Formerly on Sub Pop records, The Album Leaf’s Between Waves is the first disc for the band on Relapse Records and is their sixth studio album. But the move to another label isn’t the only unique thing about this particular disc. For the first time, LaValle’s project consisted of a full band in the studio. Along with LaValle, Matt Resovich, Brad Lee, and David Lebleu have joined the band both in the studio and as members of the live tour in support of Between Waves.
The album itself is gorgeous. The Album Leaf has departed some from the previous loose, more ambient structures on tracks. The tracks on this disc certainly feel more structured, with live drums, bass, and particular melodies that frame disparate sonic spaces and beautiful soundscapes. While the album does take moments to breath and have openness, there is a different quality here than on previous releases. Although this is the case, LaValle’s patience and carefulness are still present in the compositions and the choice of sounds and sonics connect this projects to those that have come previously, but the rest of the band has clearly placed their mark on the recording and this results in each track being a coherent piece on its own. Further, the disc’s 8 tracks are also coherent. As a full album, the disc is thoughtfully put together. The journey that The Album Leaf takes the listener on is thoughtful, contemplative, and engaging. That said, let’s turn to the individual tracks and the meat of the album.
Between Waves opens with “False Dawn”. The track begins with a rhythmic bass that eventually is joined by The Album Leaf’s signature ambience underneath. The ambient tone quickly fades as keys join the mix in a rhythmic frenzy and well placed live drums join in. The inclusion of a trumpet ushers in a louder fuller mix as the track builds. It’s a gorgeous instrumental introduction to what follows and sets the listener up for the synth sounds of the disc that lay to rest in the live, more organic elements. “Glimmering Lights” open up the soundscape vocabulary of the disc having had a taste of “False Dawn”. The synth work on “Glimmering” is beautiful and warm. Deep tones sit under bright glimmering synth sonics that bounce off of one another playfully. The bass work on this track is perfection. It really glues the synth work with live percussion together. The additional percussion work (shakers, etc.) of James McAlister fills some of the spaces in the track beautifully.
There is no break, no silence, no pause between “Glimmering Lights” and the next track “New Soul”. The beat instantly kicks in and has a jazzy, soulful feel. The melody quickly emerges and this leads into the first vocals on the disc. There is a hopeful tinge of renewal in the lyrics. “There is a way to come back / there is a way from here / There is a way” croons Jimmy LaValle. It seems that The Album Leaf are taking their listeners on a journey. This isn’t a melancholy, cynical journal but one filled with bright soundscapes that emote change in all its gracious glory. “Back to the Start” is a soaring track that opens bright and layered with syncopated rhythm and subtle tones filling spaces. If the journey is indeed the core of the album, then we have here, perhaps, the soundtrack for new beginnings which breed possibility.
“Wandering Still” presents a sonic turning point on the album. It starts out with a more robotic, almost hollow tone that moves in waves across the speakers. This is in the mix for almost two minutes. Perhaps a bump in the road of the musical journey but this hollow synth gives way to drums that are brought up in the mix which drive a beautiful, spacious, almost orchestral soundscape. This track breathes and has spaces only filled by very subtle, bright accents. The more ominous synths make an appearance once again at the end of the track and lead into “Never Far”. A crisp, almost clapping sounding percussion opens the track. It once again introduces LaValle’s vocals, which, by the way, are perfect against the background of the bands compositions. The lyrics denote a longing to be near a loved one or perhaps a lover. LaValle sings “I’m always part of you / I’m never far from you / I’m always part of you / I’m never far away.” Driving drums give the track urgency and accent wonderfully what LaValle seems to be hinting at.
“Lost in the Fog” precedes the finale of the disc being its penultimate track. It begins with quirky electronic glitches that lead into a strong drum track. The spaces are filled with humming, lo key synth. A beautiful, mournful melody is introduced with synth and trumpet sounds in conversation with one another. This leads to the last track on the disc and its title track “Between Waves.” The track is slow and patient with subtle percussion. This is also the third track on the disc with vocals. The lyrics are both hopefully but not entirely optimistic. Perhaps we should call what LaValle is communicating here “realistic”. The imagery evokes the ebbs and flows of difficulties in life as they come and go while trying to maintain relationships. Perhaps, between the rising tides, LaValle sees love as an anchor that keeps one from floating away into oblivion.
Moonlight stays in my sight
Darkness, fills my eyes
Thought are running through my mind
Somewhere, we are free
Between waves, I take my breath
Feel the rain, won’t let go, no one knows
Inside, we let go, our love grows
The images in this final track are evocative and the music a perfect backdrop.
LaValle and company’s work is thought-provoking. The finale of the disc leads one to begin again. To take the journey once more with The Album Leaf from “False Dawn” to “Between Waves”. While I may have read into the disc some of my own thoughts, I was led by the soundscapes and album titles through the journey. I encourage lovers of music to take it in themselves and find where Between Waves takes them. You won’t be disappointed.
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