Few things could be as emotionally stunning as a mute suddenly opening his mouth and speaking. Over the course of the past five years, San Diego's Jimmy LaVelle, who records under the name The Album Leaf, has honored an almost monastic vow of silence; barring the occasional collaboration with luminaries such as Bright Eyes and Her Space Holiday, his work has been bereft of the human larynx. Which makes sense: Beside having served in Gogogo Airheart and the Black Heart Procession, as well as pioneer screamo acts like the Locust and Crimson Curse, LaVelle made a name for himself as the pianist of Tristeza, the lauded post-rock ensemble that combined ethereality and instrumental tension with a conspicuous lack of vocals. The Album Leaf has expanded Tristeza's already aloof aura into even more cerebrally distant territory. But as vibrant and compelling as the Leaf's ambient compositions have been so far, they've always lacked a certain intimacy, a certain articulation -- in other words, a voice. So when "Eastern Glow," one of the most gorgeous tracks on In a Safe Place, erupts with its creator's sultry hum, it's a revelation. LaVelle comes on like Brian Eno trapped in Leonard Cohen's body, chiseling gaunt, ascetic shapes out of slabs of bleak atmosphere. His singing, though, bridges the gulf between his soul and the listener's, rendering his tenderness palpable rather than expressionlessly abstract. Safe Place is still pretty light on the vocal end of things; besides arresting guest performances by Black Heart's Pall Jenkins and Sigur Ros's Jon Thor Birgisson (three-fourths of the illustrious Icelandic group plays on the album), it's yet another hushed exercise in breath-holding. But at least now there's a crack in the anima of the auteur, a window through which the wind can whistle. Until Jimmy LaVelle Sings A Cappella comes out, it'll do.
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