[21 March 2012]
If there was an award for saddest-slowest-quietest abstract songwriter of the last five years, Jesy Fortino (better known as Tiny Vipers) and Liz Harris (better known as Grouper) would have to duke it out. But there is no such prize. Instead, Fortino and Harris have formed some sort of sad-slow-quiet abstract Dream Team, named it Mirrorring, and put out a record.
Foreign Body inches carefully forward like a slow exhale, but it’s not relaxed, it’s restrained. The record is tense and haunted, full of whispered melodies and dark washes of electronic noise. Harris’s dark electronic ambience and Fortino’s acoustic vulnerability blend so seamlessly that it’s impossible to tell where Group ends and Tiny Vipers begins. The muted dissonance and introspective melodies recall Cat Power at her best.
“Fell Sound” opens the album with a uncanny electronic hum. Like the rise and fall of a wave, it drifts between two chords. It’s in moments like this that it’s easy to see why Fortino and Harris have garnered so much respect and acclaim—few musicians have the ability to make just two slow chords this captivating for this long, and few have the patience to try. I also don’t usually have the patience to listen when they do try, but there’s something mysterious and compelling about Mirrorring that draws me in. A vocal melody, then an acoustic guitar, venture gingerly through the ambient tide, never rising about a murmur.
“Silent from Above” flips “Fell Sound” inside out, with voice and acoustic guitar leading the way, homey and wistful. The faint wash of a suspended cymbal and careful production lend texture. The song turns on a simple vocal melody, as Fortino and Harris echo and answer each other in chorus. It’s the ghost of a folk song, or the folk song of a ghost.
The album’s most impressive track is its ten-minute centerpiece “Cliffs”. Acoustic guitar and electronic ambience cast chilling spires of sound. Every voice is so subtle, so austere, that it’s difficult to comprehend the song’s swelling intensity until an unsettling ringing overpowers the guitar and singing. Soon, however, the simple acoustic arpeggio that introduced the song returns alongside the haunting melody, bolder this time against the murky flood of noise. And then, the song breaks apart into deep drones and clattering echoes. The final two minutes buzz and whirr like the remenants of broken machines, and I don’t know why, but my blood runs cold.
Out of this eerie quiet, the first note of “Drowning the Call” is startling, but the song is actually the album’s calmest, drifting hazily through its seven minutes. There is something desolate about the song’s calm though, the way it refuses to grow or move, a bleak fog that only makes sense after the destructive colossus of “Cliffs”. “Mine” is the most vocal-anchored track, though the voices are still low in the swirling sound. The instruments creak like the wood of an old house while an distant pulse, a sort of chirping deep below the surface, swells in urgent horror.
“Mirror of Our Sleeping”, the album’s closing track, gives meaning to the collaboration’s name, as unadorned vocals and a simple instrumental echo in the calm. This is the album’s only track empty of hovering ambience; although the sounds are still laden with effects, you can make out every note played or sung. The reverb, the repetition, the warped pitches, all evoke moonlit reflections and refractions on the surface of some dark lake.
Foreign Body is stunningly beautiful, crafted with tremendous care and talent. Could we expect anything less from two musicians of the caliber of these two women? Although it’s not explicitly “about” anything, the record is profoundly troubling—spectral, pained and cryptic. There are moments here to take your breath away.