Ambient music is a genre which is extremely easy to shrug off. You could view it as simply the product of a digital age inhabited by kids with too much time and technology on their hands, or of people who can’t play ‘real’ instruments. In some cases, these pithy assessments are accurate, as anyone who’s been subjected to a bad chillout compilation will attest, but in others nothing could be further from the truth.
One act which fits into the latter category would certainly be The Album Leaf, the musical project of San Diego multi-instrumentalist Jimmy LaValle. Since forming The Album Leaf in 1998, LaValle has gradually accrued a healthy fanbase and a reputation as an eminently listenable ambient musician.
Combining live-played instruments and vocals with recorded loops and electronic soundbites, LaValle’s music exhibits not only a finely-tuned ear for melody and composition, but also a genuine musicality often lacking in the efforts of lesser synth-smiths. LaValle started his musical career as a drummer, and currently supplies vocals, synths, piano and guitar to The Album Leaf’s musical potion, so there’s no chance of seeing him huddled mutely over a MacBook idly pressing keys to churn out bleeps and bloops. No, his modus operandi is far more melodic than that.
Known for his frequent use of Rhodes piano and a dazzling live presence, LaValle constructs his sounds organically rather than arfiticially; they are melodic patterns and riffs rather than indecipherable noise, and on The Album Leaf’s best tracks, the combination of real instruments with a wide scope of electronic sounds creates a uniquely beguiling, innovative sound.
What The Album Leaf’s last three records – In A Safe Place, Into The Blue Again and A Chorus Of Storytellers – have also revealed is a proclivity for using vocals more frequently. While tracks like ‘Until The Last’ (A Chorus…) or ‘Micro Melodies’ (The Album Leaf’s contribution to the Moog movie soundtrack) benefit from a solely instrumental approach, each bearing a memorable melody of its own, LaValle’s vocals are used to great effect, partially because they’re not included on every song. ‘Writings On The Wall’ (Into The Blue Again) and ‘We Are’ (A Chorus…) are just two examples of the impact the inclusion of vocals can have on The Album Leaf’s music.
Consistently able to hook the ear, The Album Leaf should be considered a benchmark for the genre, mixing post-rock with electronica and ambience to create an ethereal, intriguing blend of music unlike almost any other. Able to soothe or animate, Jimmy LaValle’s band always turn out quality; we should remain constantly grateful that The Album Leaf are here to offer a therapeutic life raft to us, as we paddle along in the raging seas of the world.