Review: The Album Leaf, 'Between Waves' On its sixth album (and first since 2010), Jimmy LaValle's hushed ambient project has a way with whispers, minimalism and intimacy.
NPR logo Review: The Album Leaf, 'Between Waves'

Review: The Album Leaf, 'Between Waves'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.


The Album Leaf, Between Waves. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

Jimmy LaValle hasn't always been this quiet. Before launching the hushed solo ambient project The Album Leaf in 1999, the native San Diegan made chaotic noise in a handful of experimental hardcore bands, most notably Swing Kids, The Crimson Curse and The Locust. He turned toward more contemplative sounds with the post-rock group Tristeza, which he co-founded in 1997 (and left in 2003). But it's his solo effort that's brought LaValle the most attention and acclaim. Starting with 1999's An Orchestrated Rise To Fall, The Album Leaf has slowly grown into a rapturously meditative act, capable of zero-gravity drift and sky-scraping melody.

Between Waves — The Album Leaf's sixth full-length album, and its first since 2010's A Chorus Of Storytellers — deepens and strengthens LaValle's way with whispers, minimalism and intimacy. Predominantly instrumental, the record draws from the krautrock tradition of groups like Cluster, all synthesized bursts and futuristic sleekness. But in "False Dawn," the alienating sound is brought down to earth: Lush and lumbering, it's punctuated with brass-like fanfares and skittering beats. "Back To The Start" injects vintage synth-pop into the formula, even as it toys with off-kilter time signatures and a droning sense of melancholy. And in "Lost In The Fog," LaValle gets abstract, favoring huge yet languid drums underneath glitchy blips and the sudden, almost unsettling warmth of jangly guitars.

LaValle doesn't sing often, but when he does, it's arresting. He doesn't come into "New Soul" until the track is halfway over; when his voice wanders in, its singsong wistfulness brings a lonely dimension to the already-downbeat excursion. "Never Far" and "Between The Waves" feature full vocals throughout, and as such, they're the closest thing to potential hits on the album. But even when they're sweetened and humanized by LaValle's dreamy croon, there's cinematic sprawl to these songs — an evocation of drama, loss and fraught emotional atmosphere, all without tipping overboard.

Even with the back-and-forth between vocal tracks and instrumentals, the album doesn't hold a lot of peaks or valleys. "Take my breath / Between waves," LaValle chants sleepily across the title track's refrain. Like the tide, the record swells from one state to the next, building and dissipating in sequences of soft pulses and washes of blissful oblivion. The mood may shift — sometimes shadowy and pensive, sometimes luminous and euphoric — but Between Waves gently maintains its persistent, consuming lull.