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Life on Earth 

Tiny Vipers - Sub Pop

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Seattle-based singer/songwriter Jesy Fortino, under the apt nom de guerre of Tiny Vipers, writes and performs music from a place of isolation -- like, say, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland -- a place, an environment set apart from a larger body. Tiny Vipers' sophomore release, Life On Earth, evokes an atmosphere both foreign and familiar.

Even though Fortino hails from San Antonio, she seems to have picked up a brogue in her inflection that is not unlike the culture and language of those from the far eastern islands of Canada. "You'll always be somebody else..." echoes Fortino in the concluding song, "Outside." This is not a forced statement or emotion; the narrator simply recognizes a sense of place without a place -- it's music for Samuel Beckett County.

Sure, there's a definite line from this new crop of "freakfolk" or "New Weird Americana," one influenced by Harry Smith's monumental compilation, Anthology of American Folk Music and recently re-discovered singer/songwriters such as Karen Dalton and Judee Sill. With Fortino, however, you get a sense that there is also a close kinship to Nico, as well as with contemporary artists such as Chan Marshall (Cat Power). Fortino has a breathy, low register singing style, but never mistake her for "wispy." Her lyrics are abstract puzzles, a delivery used by scores of contemporary songwriters from Stephen Malkmus to Kristin Hersh, and it's the atmosphere that is important: stark, lonely and extremely minimalistic.

Life on Earth is bare, stripped down to essentially vocals and guitars, with an occasional piano and a few effects. Fortino and producer Andrew Hernandez, who runs the analog studio Premier Recordings, based in Austin, have created an organic, ambient record, one also rooted in folk. This is most evident in the intriguing "Twilight Property," dense with low-volume ambient textures, allowing Fortino to stray from her melancholic, distant delivery, adding a sharper tone to her inflection. Or how the ambient collage of sound, both clear and distorted, that crawls beneath "Time Takes," is haunting and beautiful, ending with a foggy, distorted guitar note, repeatedly ringing.

One must admit that it is odd to release an album that communicates the feeling of late autumn or early winter in the throes of summer. And one must have patience with a release like Life on Earth; its pace is slow, somewhat monotonous, as if this is a collection of songs that are part of a singular orchestral piece. Not everyone's cup of tea, to be sure. However, Jesy Fortino's music is quietly engaging, leaning toward the ambient in a unique manner. And one looks forward to see how her music develops in the near future, hopefully under the exposure of more light.

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Mark Shikuma

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