The Album Leaf
In a Safe Place

Sub Pop

t’s always nice when a musical artist makes good on the expectations that fans and critics have lavished upon him. In the case of Jimmy LaValle, expectations have been high. Upon leaving instrumental-post-rock outfit Tristeza, guitarist LaValle dove into territory not terribly different than that of his old band. The key difference was that LaValle incorporated electronic keyboard into his sound. Always the restrained guitarist, favoring melody over bombast, LaValle applied this same ethic to his keyboard playing. There were glimmers of uniqueness to his sound even on his first post-Tristeza album, the poorly recorded, transitional, An Orchestrated Rise to Fall. But it wasn’t until 2001’s One Day I'll Be on Time, which received a much larger amount of press than it ever would have otherwise, thanks to the coveted position of opener for Sigur Ros on their first US tour that he had begun to cement his sound.

Opening for Sigur Ros will likely be seen as a turning point of LaValle and his Album Leaf project. Contacts in the world of rock music are wholly under appreciated, but LaValle has a nice group of them. Leaving his stifling bedroom recording studio, LaValle finally answered a request that had been made numerous times: to travel to Iceland and record in the Mosfellsbaer studio which has been used by both Sigur Ros and Mum. LaValle, with a beguilingly reluctant nod, packed up his golden synth and guitar and left sunny San Diego for the lush, yet austere Iceland.

Working in Iceland, LaValle was, as the cover at implies, very much influenced by his new arctic environment. But beyond a change in recording location, LaValle also was surrounded by an array of talented guest musicians. Former Mum member Gyda Valtysdottir plays cello on “The Outer Banks,” one of the more beat driven songs on the record. Beginning with what LaValle does best, his signature organ and what sounds like both a mix of live and electronic percussion builds into a climax with layers of strings and keyboards meshing together perfectly into a melodic hodgepodge.

The music press, when mentioning LaValle’s newest album, have all excitedly remarked about how it includes vocals, a first for the band. While it would seem like a natural progression for LaValle to make his sound a bit more pop-based with the inclusion of vocals, aside frp, “Over the Pond,” which is highlighted by Jon Thor Birgisson of Sigur Ros’ androgynous Hopelandic, it doesn’t seem to work. “On Your Way,” an otherwise pretty, down tempo guitar-based song, sounds somewhat marred by LaValle and Pall Jenkins’ (of Black Heart Procession) rough, somewhat amelodic vocals. The vocals work a little better on “Eastern Glow” because they are hardly sung, but rather sing-spoken in a low voice. One of the high points of the album is “Another Day,” which is revised from the A Lifetime or More split EP with On! Air! Library!. Some ambience, that blessed organ sound, some glitch percussion, softly plucked guitar and some majestic strings thrown in for good measure, create a beautiful song that would sound perfect while standing in the sunlight atop Mt. Everest or walking through boot-high snow in the dead of winter.

It’s hard to say if In a Safe Place lives up to the expectations that so many have of LaValle. But nevertheless, it’s an interesting step forward. While not entirely successful throughout, it still contains enough majestic moments of sheer aural bliss to qualify as one of the most beautifully melodic down tempo-instrumental albums you are likely to hear this year.

Reviewed by: Gentry Boeckel

Reviewed on: 2004-06-23

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