In a valley filled with flowers unseen in the dark
— “Night-Blooming Cereus” by Protomartyr
Jesy Fortino, a.k.a. Tiny Vipers, is a Seattle-based musician best known for two LPs released on Sub Pop: LIFE ON EARTH (2009) and HANDS ACROSS THE VOID (2007). LAUGHTER is the first Tiny Vipers release since LIFE ON EARTH, and with eight years between them, the two works share very little stylistic or sonic commonality. Where LIFE ON EARTH and HANDS ACROSS THE VOID offer quiet, serene acoustic guitar and hushed vocals, LAUGHTER is largely an organic construction of moody soundscapes and ambient keyboard sketches. There is no acoustic guitar and scarce vocals. It is woven of a different fabric entirely.
The word “laughter” tends to evoke thoughts of carefree joviality, so it's somewhat amusing that an album by that title would contain no such sentiments. Rather their opposites. The mood on LAUGHTER often feels unsettled, gloomy, and ponderous. Affability is absent.
Album opener “Boarding Charon's Boat” begins with haunted vocals floating nervously, as if trying to escape, above a pulsing, shifting electronic landscape that scrambles, agitated, into something akin to mania at its climax. Then the sudden segue into the disarming calm of “Crossing The River Of Yourself” — a track of such resonant beauty that it often echoes in my head unprompted. LAUGHTER's third track, “Living on a Curve”, has a wayward anxiety reminiscent of the most esoteric, lyricless tracks from Bowie's Berlin trilogy. It could probably sequence on the autistic second side of LOW inconspicuously. Elsewhere, the scare-synth on “K.I.S.S.” and the album's title track evokes portentous unease suitable for a horror score, like a John Carpenter theme reimagined.
Fortino's Sub Pop output garnered a devoted, if largely independent, following as well as some critical acclaim, and I could see where fans of those albums — and who aren't aware of her foray into brooding ambience with Mirroring, a collaboration with Grouper's Liz Harris — might be surprised by LAUGHTER's stylistic about-face. But there is no cause for disappointment here. With LAUGHTER, Fortino has given them, us, something wholly original — a kind of field recording from the unknown — that speaks to a creative vision far more interesting (IMO) and vast in scope than the more traditional singer/songwriter fare of her earlier work. Once you hear it it doesn't let go.