“Sometimes, it's not very private when I'm working,” producer, omni-instrumentalist and San Diego fixture Jimmy LaValle says of his current studio digs. “With this album, though, I had access to a situation that allowed me to be a lot more comfortable in what I was creating. I was able to steer away from any kind of negative energy or criticism, which was the coolest thing about it.”
LaValle is referring to a brief stretch of time late this past summer when he was invited by members of Sigur Rós to their secluded Sundlaugin studio in Mosfellsbaer, Iceland, to record most of what became the aptly named In a Safe Place (Sub Pop, 2004) — his latest release as the Album Leaf, the solo persona that he adopted (after a piece for classical piano by Chopin) in 1999 while still a guitarist with the instrumental rock outfit Tristeza. Taking a page from previous Album Leaf outings such as One Day I'll Be On Time (Tiger Style, 2001) and the EPs Lifetime or More (Arena Rock, 2003) and Seal Beach (Acuarela, 2003), LaValle once again invokes the simple but poignant keyboard melodies, spare guitar figures and meticulously programmed rhythms for which he's known but with an added focus on acoustic instruments, including live drums, strings and voice.
“With Album Leaf songs, I do tend to write in this classic kind of pop structure anyway, where I might exchange a Rhodes melody for what would be a vocal part,” LaValle confides. “But a straight-up vocal-based song is a new thing for me.” A case in point is the dreamlike “On Your Way,” in which singer Pall Jenkins (of San Diego indie dirge-rockers the Black Heart Procession) lends his folksy pipes to the program as LaValle creates a hypnotic wash of sound on electric guitar, Hammond organ and drum kit while warbling background harmonies of his own. The more melancholy “Over the Pond” features Sigur Rós vocalist Jonsi Birgisson, who intones a haunting couplet over a piano fugue that swells with low-end synths, seagull sounds and disembodied voices, eventually absorbing cellos, flutes and violins into the mix as a languorous beat rises up from the depths. In a Safe Place is rife with moments like these, even recalling Brian Eno's Another Green World (EG, 1974) on “Eastern Glow,” a steadily throbbing showcase for Jenkins' lower range, with LaValle's bright Rhodes piano lighting the way.
Although recording in an unfamiliar studio presents its challenges — for one, LaValle had to acquaint himself with Sydec's Soundscape 32 digital audio system and all of the attendant hardware — some reliable methods, as embodied in the warm synthetic beats of cuts such as “The Outer Banks” and “Another Day,” still endure. Using a combination of Image-Line Software Fruityloops and Propellerhead Reason with Sony Vegas editing software, LaValle builds rhythm sequences that breathe in a subtly morphing series of clicks and clacks vaguely reminiscent of Aphex Twin's loose, organic feel. “I'll have one simple loop, and then I'll make about 10 of them in Fruityloops [or Reason] that are just slightly different,” he explains. “I might randomly program different kick or snare placements and then drop everything into Vegas and start grabbing little slices of sounds from the whole sequence and pulling them into another track. After that, I just pitch-shift or stretch those slices as accents to the music. That's basically my whole trick.”
All tricks aside, just as In a Safe Place represents a new headspace for LaValle, his fans can expect a similar awakening when the Album Leaf tours as a five-piece band this summer. “I think it was a step forward for me to start writing this way, and I'm looking forward to doing it live,” he says. “It's kind of weird because there were a lot of times in the studio when I was thinking this was not a signature Album Leaf record because there's not a lot of those Brian Eno — influenced drone-type pieces that I normally do. But making a record like this, there's a little more excitement to it. I think it stands for what it is and what we were able to accomplish over in Iceland.”