You can’t do it all yourself. It’s a true hallmark of personal growth and knowledge that Jimmy LaValle, a.k.a. the Album Leaf, seems to have taken to heart since 2006’s Into the Blue Again. In his personal life, LaValle tied the knot in 2008 and married his high school sweetheart (which one can only guess the sweet and restrained “Tied Knots,” on his fifth release, A Chorus of Storytellers, nods to). Then, in early 2009, for the first time as the Album Leaf, LaValle recorded with a full band. He had previously — almost always — provided the studio instrumentation himself.
Mixed in Reykjavik by Sigur Ros’s engineer Birgir Jon Birgisson, Storytellers is all the better for LaValle’s new approach, pulling together a fuller, more concentrated sound. It seems taking himself halfway out of the picture has allowed LaValle to get a better look at it, and for this reason the 11-track album gives the impression that creating song identity was a collaborative process.
With an Icelandic horn section, his entire touring band and some symphony players, Storytellers still sounds like an Album Leaf record, with distinguishing slower, sweeping moments and melancholic structures. But songs like “Until the Last” fluidly blends lush, live string elements with light-handed beats in a way that LaValle could not achieve before (in contrast to, say, the halting and hesitant tones of 2001’s One Day I’ll Be on Time). In the same way, where past releases were overly meditative and somber, Storytellers moves at a steady pace and finds balance in the talent assembled to make it. Closer “We Are” finishes on the up-tempo, with lyrics mirroring the process: “We all are pushing and pulling/ We are breaking the distance/ If there’s still some time in our thoughts/ We walk away and back again.”
Over a decade in the making, the Album Leaf is just now hitting its stride, making A Chorus of Storytellers an aptly named marker of its 10-year anniversary. Here, finally, we find a singular imperative, neither too landscapey nor guitar driven, like a collage of 10 years’ worth of influences. Traces of other San Diego bands like Pinback and LaValle’s own Tristeza and the Black Heart Procession are distinctly here, culminating in mellow harmonies, relaxed bass lines and subtle ambient effects. LaValle’s decision to loosen the reigns and invite trusted players and friends into the studio has yeilded his most focused release to date — proof that a small risk is often the first step toward bigger and better things.