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Carbon Leaf blasted into the national spotlight two years ago with their major label debut, Indian Summer. But while they kept busy working as support on major national tours (Dave Matthews Band, Counting Crows, John Mayer, etc.) and headlining their own, these Virginia-based self-starters kept moving forward musically as well as professionally. That point rings clear throughout Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat, a collection of new songs whose sound is the richest, whose grooves are the most infectious, and whose messages run the deepest of anything they’ve yet put to disc.

With Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat Carbon Leaf defines itself as a tight instrumental unit, capable of cranking up the heat even with scaled-down arrangements based on acoustic guitar, in perfect complement to a vocal sound that can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. Barry Privett has mastered the art of singing with a compelling detachment; his voice, whether on its own or woven into two- and three-part harmony, beckons the listener into the lyric as it opens within the heart of these songs.

And it’s worth getting close to what Privett has to say. Riding with the band’s creative ascent, he has his head in the clouds on both ends of the album, beginning with track one, the single “Learn to Fly,” and soaring all the way to the end, in the witty imagery of “International Airport.” Between these points of departure he spends some time back on the ground, taking “the train to oblivion at the crossing of our lives” on “Under the Wire,” trudging down roads “paved with ice from the darkest tears but brightened by the ones around you now” on “Royal One,” racing down open highways toward a collision of the heart on “Comfort,” and even standing still, watching helplessly as love gallops from reach on “A Girl and Her Horse.”

On these tracks in fact, throughout all of Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat Privett emerges as possibly the most inventive writer of metaphor in music today. As the title suggests, “A Block of Wood” is pretty much about exactly that, though Privett turns it over and around until we see it as a symbol of something whittled into oblivion and lost (“In the ash I found an ember, something warm … blowing in the wind”). Perhaps his finest moment comes on “The War Was in Color,” a touching dialog between grandfather and grandson that turns, in a moment, into an unexpected, eloquent elegy.

“I wanted songs that were emotionally available to the listener and to me,” he explains, “without trying to mask what I’m saying with clever language. The feelings are anxious and regretful. They talk about living up to the mistakes you’ve made. They examine the humanity and weaknesses of everyday life.”

It is surprising yet not, too, in a way that these finely chiseled performances gelled as quickly as they did, during a three-week rush of recording in Nashville followed by ten days of overdubbing in Richmond. Departing from previous routine, Carbon Leaf didn’t work out this material on the road before hitting the studio. Instead, they started rolling tape with nothing but rough sketches as their guides, which they fleshed into arrangements that might serve as models of instrumental economy at no loss to emotional impact.

This is, of course, a tribute to the synchronicity that the band has developed through more than ten years of teamwork. But it speaks as well to the input of Peter Collins, one of the most respected producers in the business. With more than 20 years worth of achievement on projects with Bon Jovi, Elton John, Rush, Jewel, and dozens of other high-profile artists, Collins could apply outstanding ears and experience to Carbon Leaf’s ideas. It was, Privett insists, an ideal meeting of minds.

“We tend to write freely, without editing,” he explains. “Peter helped us trim our stuff and at the same time open it up. As the songs came together, I realized we were writing about the unseen forces that drive our lives: the seasons of the year, the human cycle of love and loss, life and death, despair and hope. The phrase ‘love, loss, hope, repeat’ became the album title because it summed up the bittersweet tone of these songs.”

It also documents the self-awareness that the members of Carbon Leaf have developed, as individuals and as an ensemble. They’ve come a long way from their decision, as students at Randolph-Macon College, to try their luck at forming a band. But for all they’ve accomplished, Love, Loss, Hope, Repeat is something different. It is, in fact, a turning point: accessible yet poetically elusive, rhythmically irresistible yet understated, a harbinger of what will come and the sum of what had gone before. Carbon Leaf, like Privett’s celestial visions, is on its way up.

Carbon Leaf