A New (Album) Leaf: Jimmy LaValle’s ambient/post-rock solo project kicks into high gear

Back to the factory: LaValle is bringing his Little Phatty to Moog when he comes to town. Moog gear is a major part of his layered music.

Jimmy LaValle is in a great mood.

It might be because on the day he talked to Xpress over the phone from California, it was the first day of a monthlong tour, one that ends with a set at the All Tomorrow’s Parties fest in NYC. Or maybe it’s because he’s finally getting to talk about Asheville, a city he’s been dying to play ever since he bought his first Moog synth years back. Then again, maybe it’s simply because after five albums and more than a decade into his solo career as the Album Leaf, he’s about to drop one of his most exciting releases to date.

“I feel like I’ve finally made a different record,” LaValle says about his latest EP, Forward/Return, due out Tuesday, Sept. 18 (the same day as his show at the Grey Eagle, incidentally). “That’s what I’ve been striving toward, to do something new.”

But don’t worry, it still definitely sounds like Album Leaf. There are the gorgeous Brian Eno-esque melodies, the layers upon layers of shifting samples and sonic textures, the electronic breaths and beats. All the elements that helped land Album Leaf on everything from Cadillac commercials and CSI: Miami to documentaries like Helvetica and a volunteering PSA with first lady Michelle Obama.

But where his previous albums tended to wallow in a melancholy downshift, his latest is surprisingly upbeat, almost danceable. The old lethargic, programmed rhythms have been pushed aside for propulsive, raw drums. Lush swells of warm guitar and trumpet and violin burst at the seams of every track, bubbling over with life and transforming Album Leaf’s once trademark meandering, meditative mood into something bold and joyful. Dare we say sexy, even.

This newfound energy probably comes from the fact that, like with 2010’s A Chorus of Storytellers, LaValle has once again recorded with his full, live band.

“It takes a lot of pressure off,” he admits, laughing. “I’ve always had a dream of making Album Leaf into a collaborative band. But my approach to songwriting is very hands on, very full. I hear a lot of things at once and I just do it. To me at this point, though, [recording with the full band] just feels right. The songs are still mine, and they’re still written by me and worked on by me for months and months and months before anybody in the band actually hears them. It’s still my project in that way. But it’s nice to work with other people, get somebody else’s feel and to change it up. Things [on Forward/Return] that brought songs life definitely happened within the band.”

It especially helps when said band is made up of three extremely versatile multi-instrumentalists, among other things. Take drummer Dave LeBleu, who in his spare time builds his own synthesizers. You can hear LaValle play one of LeBleu’s creations on Forward/Return’s closing track, the swirling, John-Carpenter-‘80s-movie-tinged “Dark Becomes Light.”

“Dave’s like an electronics genius,” LaValle says. “Which is pretty amazing to have on your side. By now he’s probably got six-feet-f—king-solid of modules. And he built me a pedal that I use in my guitar setup. He put it in a nice case and put a leaf on it.” He laughs. “I was like, ‘That’s awesome.’”

As you can probably guess, LaValle is a bit of an analog-gear geek. Ask him about the Moog instruments he owns, and it’s like he’s reading out of the catalogue: Little Phatty, Voyager, MuRF pedal, Prodigy, Rogue, Opus 3, original Taurus pedal. He uses them so often that one of his songs was picked for the soundtrack of the 2004 documentary, Moog. Which just makes his first trip to Asheville all that much more special.

“Yeah, I’m pretty excited about it,” he says. “For primarily the Moog factory. What they’re doing there is amazing, how they’re still coming out with new things and still making them modern. It’s pretty incredible that they’re so small but continuing to be such a big name, along the same lines as Korg or Roland. It’s like the local coffee shop competing with Starbucks. And the Little Phatty that we tour with needs a bit of TLC, so when we get into town I’m planning on dropping that off and checking the place out.”

He might never leave.

Miles Britton can be reached at milesbritton@gmail.com.

who: The Album Leaf, with Tycho
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Tuesday, Sept. 18 (9 p.m. $10 advance, $12 day of show. thegreyeagle.com.)

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