Although it’s far from being a memorable record, there’s a moment on The Album Leaf’s debut — 1999’s An Orchestrated Rise to Fall — that haunts me as I type these words. No matter how many lead paragraphs I try to write, my mind keeps drifting back to “An Interview,” an unassuming little tune that begins with a hissy conversation between a man and a young girl. The tape’s hard to make out as it is — just some snippet of blasé dialogue or another — but moments later, a worn-out acoustic guitar appears and warps my sense of perception entirely. Beneath forlorn arpeggios, the conversation becomes no more than a faint murmur, the hiss beginning to sound less like an old cassette and more like a howling wind just around the bend. Although the conversation and the guitar would be nothing special if separated, the combination of the two evokes something terribly cold and lonely — in my mind, a couple of Neolithic man-apes huddling together in the maw of some dim cavern, grunting as they watch a snowfall they can’t begin to understand. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition that, against all odds, achieves something almost unique.
But the strange warts and fleeting transcendence of Rise to Fall made for an aesthetic largely at odds with what The Album Leaf would soon become. The past 10 years of the project’s output is better represented by main-man Jimmy LaValle’s fifth and most recent LP, A Chorus of Storytellers. There’s some decidedly autumnal imagery on the front cover, but to be honest (and perfectly ironic), Rise to Fall’s sleeve art — a painting of a snowy forest path — would fit much better; despite the green grass and a track called “Summer Fog,” Storytellers is music for the cold months. There’s the sleigh bell percussion of “Until the Last”; the xylophone icicles hanging from the melodies of “Stand Still” and “We Are”; the coolly detached echoes of “Perro,” the Eno-esque opener; and “Blank Pages,” which would make a fine soundtrack for the longest sunset of the year. A few songs are adorned by some earnest male lead vocals, but they’re mostly left untouched, like that perfect first coating of snow. The fidelity’s pretty perfect, too: listening to this record is like viewing a series of wintry scenes through a spotless window of hi-fi production (it comes as no surprise that the album was recorded in February and later glossed-‘n’-polished in an Iceland studio).
If LaValle is a Radiohead fan, I’d bet that “No Surprises” is his favorite of their songs. Not just because the bellsy track sounds like The Album Leaf’s wet dream ideal, but because the guy has so carefully avoided doing anything surprising with his music at all, at least ever since the last of Rise to Fall’s narcotic ramblings trailed off. The descriptions I’ve used in this review could just as easily apply to any of the dozen albums and EPs he’s helmed in the last 10 years. The point about how Storytellers marks The Album Leaf’s first time recording as a full band is a moot one: if the guys from Sigur Rós couldn’t make 2004’s In a Safe Place sound much different from LaValle’s multi-tracked self recordings, then it’s no surprise (!!) that his live sidemen don’t manage either.
The press release’s claim that This Is Their Best Record Yet sounds absurd, but not because it isn’t true. LaValle’s been trading in spitshined tonal conventions and vacuum-sealed beauty for quite some time now, and this might well be his best effort at putting it to record. But there are already three Album Leaf LPs that do this exact same thing, and the prospect of him doing that thing slightly better simply fails to excite.
Which is not to say that The Album Leaf are entirely without merit, even outside of a rare early treasure like “An Interview” — Wikipedia tells me that the band’s songs have scored everything from Cadillac commercials, to an MTV special on Britney Spears, to half a season’s worth of The O.C. And you know what? Like the snowy landscapes their music so easily evokes, The Album Leaf might just feel magical to you if you’ve never really experienced anything like them before. Still, like snow, there’s a friggin’ shit-ton of this kind of music out there if you care to look, and it’s been accumulating since long before LaValle’s earliest efforts. So unless you really need a fresh log to throw onto your “homework” playlist or you’re looking to set the mood for an iMovie clip involving stop motion and scarves — well, it’s hard to imagine the point.