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Turning Over a New Leaf 

"A lot of people become what they are through band and orchestra. N.E.R.D. -- Pharrell Williams and the others -- they're all from band and orchestra but they're never referred to as classically trained."

Jimmy LaValle, who is, in effect The Album Leaf, has to deal with classical music questions more than the producers of Nelly, Jay-Z, Kelis and Britney Spears do because their records don't sound like In A Safe Place (Sub Pop). LaValle's second album superficially has more in common with classical music than indie rock in that it's largely instrumental, it isn't built around pop changes, and it has an ambient quality. In fact, the comparison probably says more about how people use classical music than about genuine similarities between the music. Yes, the band's title comes from a piece by Chopin, and yes, he was classically trained in violin and clarinet, but he also played in San Diego punk bands Crimson Curse, Swing Kids and the Locust, and the new music is no more punk than it is classical. The tracks use acoustic and electric instruments and computer-generated percussive clicks to create subtle, melodic and richly textured tracks too active to be truly ambient.

He recorded the album in Iceland at the home studio of the instrumental band Sigur Rós, with whom he became friends while opening for them on Sigur Rós' first North American tour. For the San Diego native, recording there made it easier to focus. The studio in the country helped. "It was rural where the studio was," he says, "rolling green countryside, horses everywhere, waterfalls, rolling streams, ponds. It was really relaxing." But more than that, having constant access to musicians and a studio eventually shaped the pieces themselves.

The tracks began with composed piano or guitar parts, then he added layers in response to those parts. The members of Sigur Rós and a few other musicians also dropped in and recorded parts, sometimes while he was out of the studio. "They'd come by and I would go out and eat or walk around," he says, "or I wouldn't go in until 5 or something like that and other people were there working, laying stuff down."

In most cases, he'd edit these tracks to fit his vision, but in some cases, the parts suggested new directions. "The primary melody in 'Outer Banks,' the pianist for Sigur Rós laid it down on the glockenspiel then I doubled on the keyboard and she doubled it on the violin," he explains. "Then I edited it in at other points in the song so it would be a repetitive thing."

LaValle's indie background is more evident when he's talking about performing in concert. He says, "I never try to make my record better than my live show. I want my live show to be better. It's more there. It's more in your face. It's way more of a show than a listen. You're watching a show rather than just watching a band." He is playing with a second keyboard player/guitarist, a violinist and a drummer, "and a visualist," he explains, who synchronizes visual images to the music. "It's a little more powerful. The sound is a lot bigger," he says.


The Electras -- The Electras (the Electras Rock & Roll Band LLC): This 1961 recording of presidential candidate John Kerry's garage band has generated enough curiosity that it has been reissued on CD. Unfortunately, it's really only of interest as a footnote to the election. Kerry plays bass well enough to not mess things up -- that job was clearly reserved for the stumbling, out-of-tune guitar player -- but not so well that anyone will think he missed his calling. It's reassuring to have a presidential candidate who once liked rock 'n' roll enough to play it, but that doesn't mean we have to listen to it.

In the June 29 issue, Gambit Weekly reported that the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation had yet to decide if it was going to pay the musicians scheduled to play the rained out Friday, April 30. The foundation recently announced that the musicians scheduled to play that day would be paid half the contracted amount, for a total of an additional $36,000. No regional festival besides Lafayette's Festivals Acadiens identifies itself as thoroughly with the area's musicians, so for the Jazz & Heritage Foundation to treat local musicians as it has is, to be gentle, unfortunate. To take two months to decide to pay the musicians what is comparatively speaking a pittance, and to leave them in the dark for that length of time, should embarrass the foundation. Losing money clearly created a difficult situation this year, but the foundation's relationship with the city is only as solid as its relationship to the musicians. In addition, it sounds like it's time to rethink the economic model for Jazz Fest. If a rainout can have this catastrophic an effect, it's too fragile a plan.

click to enlarge The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle says, "I never try to make my record better than my live show."
  • The Album Leaf's Jimmy LaValle says, "I never try to make my record better than my live show."
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