Ever since The Album Leaf toured with Icelandic icons Sigur Rós, the band has established itself as perhaps the closest American equivalent to its expressive, otherworldly counterpart across the pond. The Album Leaf’s fifth and latest record, A Chorus of Storytellers, is a strange and sublime set of instrumental compositions.
The Album Leaf
A Chorus of Storytellers
For the last decade, The Album Leaf has been a collaborative project of its driving force and chief instrumentalist, Jimmy LaValle. He came loaded for bear with A Chorus, the group’s first album with a full band, recorded near Seattle with veteran musician Ryan Hadlock (Blonde Redhead, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks) and mixed in Iceland with producer Birgir Jón Birgisson (Sigur Rós).
After many months of editing, A Chorus places itself squarely in the tricky sphere of instrumental indie — the realm where a band relies on the strength of its shimmering keyboard melodies, spacey drum lines and atmospheric harmonics to engage listeners. Spare lyrics occasionally grace a few of the album’s tracks, but vocals aren’t the defining sounds on the album.
The new record comes across soothing, somnolent and bright. Harmonious piano arrangements and sweeping strings make for a hypnotic, dream-like experience that, for the most part, doesn’t disappoint. Just be sure not to listen to it while studying at 2 a.m., because it’s sure to cocoon a fatigued listener into sleep.
LaValle delivers consistently throughout the album but generally doesn’t step outside his comfort zone, yielding little in the way of clear standouts. After the first few songs, it’s pretty easy to guess the formula for the album’s songs: start with a repeating piano or drum line, fold some subtle and intricate melodies over it and build up to a conclusion with a pleasant solo at a higher tempo. Like those cookies grandmas bake for holidays, the record always tastes good but isn’t especially shocking or fresh.
The main stumbling block for the album is that the airy tracks occasionally drone on. “Falling from the Sun,” for instance, repeats virtually identical melodies and vocals in numbing circles. Redundancy within songs isn’t necessarily noticeable in most of the album’s tracks, but can get quite irritating when it does appear.
A Chorus sounds an awful lot like The Album Leaf’s last two records, which isn’t bad news because Album Leaf has shown it can routinely produce strong instrumental albums. There are differences between A Chorus and previous albums — the new album is altogether sleepier and less tense — but LaValle sticks to the musical forms he knows and, for the most part, does well. Fans may cross their fingers for albums that are edgier and take risks, but LaValle’s formula still works.