Friday, July 10, 2009

Review: Tiny Vipers - Life On Earth (* * * *)

There's something oddly fitting about Seattle musician Jesy Fortino's recording and performing moniker, Tiny Vipers. Listening to her music, there's no doubt about the number of people involved (namely one) or about the deeply personal nature of her sparse folk songs, yet the plural, serpentine namesake appropriately describes the slowly building emotional climaxes and subtle nuances found throughout her sophomore effort, Life On Earth. The new record is a remarkable, hour-long journey through love, loss, and other of life's mysteries with little more than Fortino's voice and guitar to guide you. The lengthy, deliberate tunes can take a little time to unveil their full beauty, but patience will be richly rewarded in one of this year's most stunning folk albums.

Fortino's especially spare, delicate style brings to mind the vocal characteristics of Joanna Newsom and the simple, winding songwriting of Mark Kozelek, though both of those comparisons can only be taken so far. With so little going on, instrumentally speaking, it's difficult to describe in writing what makes this music so captivating, but it's obvious that the magic in Tiny Vipers lies in Fortino's own unique presentation of what, on paper, is a fairly standard folk template. "Dreamer," the best and most emotionally charged track on Life On Earth, is a good place to start in understanding Fortino's strengths as a songwriter, with her signature acoustic guitar plucked gently but purposefully to support her thoughtfully melancholy lyrics. Her voice is soft, but not weak, and occasionally she pushes herself below her comfortable register into a low, dark whisper which she then rises above into a beautifully sad climax during the final minute, crying "I'm dying for a way out" in such a way as to break your heart on the spot.

Though variation isn't the focus on Life On Earth, Fortino introduces the occasional flourish, like her double-tracked vocals on "Development" or more forcefully strummed guitar on "Time Takes" to add some subtle texture to the album. Mostly, however, she creates the palpable atmosphere on the record by keeping things especially simple and uncluttered. Because of the plodding pace and bare instrumental approach, listeners might be tempted to pick a track or two to skip in order to make the whole more comprehensible and digestible (mine are "Young God" and "Untitled"), but the experience is better if time is invested to take in the entirety of Fortino's vision. The first half of the album is easily the stronger of the two, though the back half includes the epic, ten-minute title track which is quite excellent and even my aforementioned least favorites hardly feel like missteps, they just don't grab hold as completely as her best material.

Life On Earth is a truly gorgeous album worth losing yourself to if you're willing to expend the effort requires to dig into it. That's not a criticism, just an observation and perhaps a warning to those who insist their music be of the immediately gratifying variety. Jesy Fortino isn't about making this an easy experience, but a enriching and rewarding one for those who seek it.