Stripped-bare chords, a plaintive warble, and the space between each, at times, impossible to measure. This is the avant-garde minimalism of Tiny Vipers, Seattle’s Jesy Fortino, whose murky folk stretches from an emptiness so vast it can only be compared to the place of desolate beauty her music takes you. Her Sub Pop debut Hands Across The Void surpasses the expectations of its title, illuminating a rarely reached corner of the human condition with stark yet magnanimous simplicity, like light escaping the gravitational crush of a black hole.
Fortino, who readily admits her reluctance to performing live, demonstrates in her own shy way a confidence in her lucid compositions that seems to ring with each sparse pluck or rhythmic strum. When a note does break through the arable expanse, a flickering beacon of sound, the effect is like water to parched lips. Tiny Vipers’ music is defined by this openness, this silence, as much as it is by the notes that lay scattered across it; this is where Fortino’s true talent lies. As on opener “Campfire Resemblance,” where the acoustic plucks serve as a function of rhythm rather than melody, her voice bleeds through the porous gaps, sorrowful but strong.
“Shipwreck” channels Joanna Newsom’s high-pitched pixie-trill to relate its moribund lyrics. Fortino’s ethos shines with unfiltered honesty: “We want to struggle and survive/ we want to `cause we know that life is beautiful/ though surreal at times/ it’s still worth living.” Dropped B tuning further informs the melancholy of Fortino’s song craft, a nuance as subtle as the tones it culls from the nocturnal palate overhead.
With only two arpeggiated chords (and repetitive ones at that), “A Forest Fire” shouldn’t be compelling, but Fortino sells it anyway, her decisive pace a lesson in restraint. The last two thirds of the song summon a hypnotic drone of menace, frantic electric distortion, while acoustic guitar buoys the fuzz from overloading. It’s one of the more unexpected moments on the album, a rarely heard storm of pure noise. Strangely enough, it wouldn’t have been possible had Fortino not found an Oberheim synthesizer (on the ground outside the studio, purportedly) before she recorded.
Friend Ben Cissner lends a hand on closer “The Downward” and “On The Side,” and while his playing is adequate, it’s mostly only an afterthought, background to Fortino’s clearly wrought tones. Perhaps the most stunning endeavor is “Swastika.” At nearly 11 minutes, and composed of three separate movements, Fortino is at her most raw here, the rhythm guiding her pained delivery on such moving sentiments: “And the things they said/ still echo through my mind/ hell they’re the words I couldn’t find on my own.” As here and elsewhere, her narratives convey more in inferred meaning than outright revelation. And much like the music that carries it along, there seems to be an endless space for interpretation.
That Jesy Fortino never had formal musical training shouldn’t come as a surprise, her disregard for convention should be enough evidence of her individualistic bent. The sound of Tiny Vipers will bury its fangs deep inside your consciousness, with venom sweet like nectar, but paralyzing all the same.
Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender
Cat Power – Moon Pix
Emiliana Torrini – Fisherman’s Woman
MP3: “On This Side”