Thursday, July 09, 2009

Tiny Vipers: Life on Earth

Life on Earth is an album best listened to in a darkened room, with no distractions, bleating ring-toned cell phones, crying kids, guns, knives or pills nearby. It asks for a quiet setting and careful attention from the listener; overused clich├ęs like "stark" and "brooding" only scratch the surface of how intense and unflinching the album is. Its 10 songs rarely move any faster than a slow, deliberate crawl, with minimal instrumentation accenting Jesy Fortino's wounded and imperfect voice. It's a difficult, unsettling release whose lyrics and arrangements dwell in dark and seemingly permanent shadows. Most songs here sound ready-made for a funeral or existential indie film.

In many respects this isn't surprising. Fortino's 2007 debut as Tiny Vipers, Hands Across the Void, was a challenging, largely morose piece of folk music that demanded similar patience from listeners. Its subject matter was decidedly heavy, with songs like "Shipwreck" and "On This Side" seeking to articulate, if not trying to understand, life's great mysteries. Life on Earth mostly adheres to this approach, its songs preoccupied with many of themes of its predecessor, most songs infused with images of people and places and the passing of time. A somber mood dominates the album; tracks like "Eyes Like Ours," "Development" and "Young God" hint at a restlessness and longing that is at times overwhelming for the listener. Fortino's flawed voice is remarkable despite (or perhaps because of) its imperfections, though it's likely that the vocal takes here won't stop the frequent comparisons to Chan Marshall. The singer's voice takes on a ghostly and chilling quality throughout, existing somewhere in a haze slightly above the songs' sparse arrangements. It's the type of voice that can reduce anyone to a quivering wreck of tears.

Yet ultimately Life on Earth feels too labored over and repetitive for its own good. With most songs adopting similar musical and vocal structures, they eventually blend together into what sounds like a single long piece with minor variations. Though "Time Takes," "Young God" and the title track attempt to change the pace, the album mostly plods along. While Fortino's vocals are certainly unique and expressive, her tendency to over-enunciate is sometimes distracting and likewise kills the songs from gaining any momentum. Despite the album's acoustic foundation, a lack of warmth and immediacy in the production makes its songs detached and clinical, with the listener occasionally feeling like an unwelcome observer to someone trying to keep her shit together. Although the emotions Fortino expresses throughout are undeniably heartfelt, the songs ironically take on the mechanical tone and texture of a museum artifact meant to be studied at a distance, under glass. Coupled with these flaws, the album's long running time - most songs extend well past the five-minute mark - eventually wears thin and feels both overindulgent and unnecessary, with even tracks like the three-minute "CM" built around instrumental passages that quickly become tedious.

Press material for Life on Earth points out that there's a current of hope running through these songs. It's a hard sell, as Fortino's vocals alone make these songs sound mostly hopeless. At its best, Fortino's voice is mesmerizing and can evoke moods and tones without the need for much instrumentation. Still the album suffers under the weight of its own aspirations and lengthy tracks. All the buzzwords used to describe Hands Across the Void still apply here, and while Life on Earth will likely have its supporters, it's an uneven album whose lyrical and vocal intensity is offset by its occasionally ponderous execution.

No comments: