The Album Leaf
Into the Blue Again
s an album title, Into the Blue Again is truth in advertising and admission of defeat. It's a giveaway that Jimmy LaValle works almost exclusively in "blue" hues, but it’s also an indirect nod to the entirely blue album cover of In a Safe Place. Of course, it would be far tougher to pick up on that if Into the Blue Again wasn't an identical twin of its predecessor—the only way he could be more obvious about its shortcomings is if he called it In a Safer Place.
But it's tough to get incensed about LaValle's sonic stubbornness because Album Leaf isn't an act that you really get all worked up about. Give him a crisp set of drums, an electric piano, and the vocalist from Black Heart Procession and his cipher is complete. Over his past two albums and the Seal Beach EP, LaValle has continued to box in his sound, which simultaneously evokes his two bases of operation: Iceland (he was the opening act for Sigur Ros' first stateside tour and continued to collaborate with them afterwards) and San Diego. He retained the verdant, uncluttered beauty of the island nation, but imbued it with an American sense of economy, cutting things down to four-minute chunks and putting them on beachfront property where his twinkling poptronica can be best appreciated.
Into the Blue Again is more stylistically cohesive than his previous works, but the songs are ossified and interchangeable; while the one-man band aesthetic of Album Leaf implies meticulous approach to craft, there's an assembly line feel that makes you feel like he cranks out a tune in ten minutes and spends the rest of the week tweaking EQ. There are three kinds of Album Leaf songs; the first draws out sonar pings and milky piano chords. The second lays down a simple melodic pattern, adds some strings and then LaValle builds to a crescendo in the only way he knows how: the drums proceed to get louder or busier throughout. Worse, his previous live stickwork, all snappy snares and cymbal washes, are mostly replaced by more stolid click-hop electronics. Many criticized the simplicity of the acoustic drum patterns on In a Safe Place, but there was a warmth that comfortably brushed against the sterile sounds of LaValle's keys and jostled some humanity out of them.
The third is a variation of the second: it adds vocals. LaValle's lyrics rarely are more than placeholders and platitudes although he's got a pleasant enough sing-speak of a voice. The moonlight-hitting-ocean beauty of In a Safe Place's "On Your Way" was impossible to deny, but Into the Blue Again confirms that "On Your Way" was probably the only vocal track LaValle ever needed to make. "Always for You" could pass for a Hot Chip ballad except for the fact that it lacks everything that makes Hot Chip great; brains, beauty, and bounce. And the only people that should take the time to invest multiple listens to "Wherever I Go" are Darryl Hall's lawyers, as LaValle rips off "Every Time You Go Away" so well that that you half expect Pall Jenkins was wearing a fake mustache when he recorded his vocal harmonies for it.
It may seem like the splitting of some pretty thin hairs to distinguish whether this is better or worse Album Leaf rather than simply more Album Leaf. But the arc of LaValle’s work has always resulted in diminishing returns. Seal Beach is probably the strongest release, mostly because it's the shortest. 25 minutes is the amount of time it takes to do the kind of things that go well with Album Leaf—taking a short walk to the seashore, driving to work on a rainy morning, or awkwardly making out with a college newbie who thinks Moon Safari is totally played out.