Beautiful music can inspire beautiful imagery. Great music has the ability to summon pictures in its listeners so powerful that it calls forth memories, emotions, and experiences that seem almost tangible. Great music can be hauntingly evocative of not just ideas, but also of settings, and it takes a truly wonderful melody or lilting chorus to truly convey the beauty or despair of everywhere from bustling cities to barren landscapes.
However, the opposite is not always true. An empty plain or a fading sunset do not necessarily transfer to meaningful music. Just because a song is evocative does not make it meaningful. This is the conflict we find on Hands Across the Void, the debut of Seattle songwriter Jesy Fortino, who creates music under the title Tiny Vipers. This album—filled with sparse and sweet sonic textures—succeeds at evoking the beautiful Northwestern landscapes which it seems meant to reflect. However, the effect of these landscapes often fails to engage the listener and ends up leaving us full of pretty images, but still seeking music in its most authentic forms.
Effects like repetition, distortion, and silence can be astonishingly powerful when used with purpose. But sometimes, the depth of Fortino’s music ends up being deceptively shallow. For example, the ten minutes of sparse guitar in “Swastika” fails to ever build up to much at all. Experimental, atypical music can be beautiful and powerful, when constructed deliberately. But it should not be assumed that because a song can be described using the words “sparse” or “haunting” that it is automatically artistically viable. Most of Hands Across the Void does not possess any formulaic song forms, and none of it falls into the hands of predictable pop hooks. Alas, that doesn’t make this work innovative in the end. Listenability isn’t a direct corollary to quality, for sure. If so, anyone who can string a pleasing set of notes together would be deserving of our praise. But at the same time, if an album is challenging for a listener to unravel, it must be so for a purpose; music can only be effectively abstract if it is very deliberately so.
Sometimes the tracks of Hands Across the Void sacrifice true musical intent for lyrical imagery or seeming importance. Somewhere during the several minutes of fuzzed out repetition on “Forest on Fire”, the listener stops listening. The dissonance, at first portraying images both melancholy and hopeful, eventually becomes mere background noise. This is probably the effect Fortino is striving for. Nonetheless, it is nothing that can’t be achieved by tuning your car radio in between two stations.
That said, from the void of much of this album’s wandering emerges a strange sort of beauty. Fortino’s voice is full of a delicate sort of strength; her style of songwriting seems at once fragile and yet still expresses the world of a deeply mature songwriter and woman. Her simple guitar strums are forceful yet reserved, possessing a raw power that is very distinctly her own. The strongest tracks are the ones in which Fortino doesn’t stray as far conceptually from pop musical norms, but rather uses her distinct voice to express very real thoughts. “On This Side” is chilling in its intimacy, using simple chords to highlight quietly intense lyrics. The enchanting “Shipwreck” is similarly authentic, opening with a simple guitar line under Fortino’s loping, velvet croon:
We want to struggle and survive
We want to live
Cause we know that life,
Though surreal at times.
The extended, minimalist moments of Hands Across the Void, though perhaps achieving the goal of their creator, serve more as an aesthetic backdrop than as truly great music. But in between these stretches of intangibility and out of their directionless drones come the truly great moments of this album. These are the moments when the listener travels, as its title suggests, across a void of abstraction into a world that is beautifully corporeal. These are the moments in which we realize that Jesy Fortino is a unique voice worth listening for, creating music worth struggling through in order to find its beauty.