Sprawl of Sound

Femmes Vitale: Getting binary with Tiny Vipers and Nicole Willis

Welcome to the debut of Sprawl of Sound. I hope to use this space for alerting you to what I consider to be the most interesting music skittering through my headphones. Each week, I will sift through my precariously teetering stacks of CDs and the fearsomely multiplying MP3s on Al Gore's astonishingly useful invention and analyze, contextualize, hyperbolize and occasionally pulverize the sonic specimens I think will stimulate your minds with the greatest force. I also hope to spotlight Orange County musicians, DJs, promoters and aural entrepreneurs doing outstanding things, as well as to hip you to exceptional touring acts venturing into our zone. In sum, I will strive to make Sprawl of Sound (literally) an S.O.S. to all who seek sonic succor—and gratuitous alliteration. If you have news, tips, gossip and/or music to share, send info/sounds to me at dsegal@ocweekly.comor OC Weekly, 1666 N. Main St., Ste. 500, Santa Ana CA 92701.

Let's move on to this week's subjects: Tiny Vipers and Nicole Willis and The Soul Investigators.

Tiny Vipers—Seattle singer/songwriter/guitarist Jesy Fortino—proves there will always be a need for sad-girl music (an incomplete list would include Lisa Germano, Hope Sandoval, Beth Orton and Stina Nordenstam). One can't always be in party/ecstatic mode, right? Sometimes one craves the wallowing-in-pity soundtrack that consoles the soul with more efficiency than anything else. That's where albums such as Tiny Vipers' debut full-length, Hands Across the Void (Sub Pop), come creeping in.

Nicole Willis. Photo courtsey of Light in the Attic Records.
Nicole Willis. Photo courtsey of Light in the Attic Records.

Fortino's voice projects both unwavering conviction and just the slightest trace of vulnerability. It's a very human voice: unadorned, serious as cancer and modulated to relay hard truths, pitiless observations and cryptic metaphors. One gathers that Hands Across the Void will become popular with sensitive liberal-arts students and those whose MySpace heroes include Emily Dickinson and Joanna Newsom.

Equipped with an upliftingly glum delivery and an acoustic guitar tuned to the key of F(orlorn), Fortino turns what easily could've been typical coffeehouse fare into a desolate campfire setting devoid of wool-sweater/flower-print-skirt bonhomie. She plays her acoustic with plangent economy, chopping out morose, minimalist chords that hit you like a bedpan's worth of shaved ice. (Ex-Windsor for the Derby guitarist Ben Cissner offers radiant six-string sympathy to "On This Side" and "The Downward.")

The chillingly beautiful, midnight-blue-bathed photography by David Belisle that graces Void's CD cover and inner booklet is the visual analogue to the music's "one woman dealing with the wonders and horrors of nature" gestalt. Belisle captures Fortino holding a lantern as she's dwarfed by awesome Pacific Northwest landscapes and seemingly placid forests. But the most gripping shot may be that of Fortino barefoot and paralyzed in the middle of a country road before the onrushing headlights of a vehicle (or is it the blinding illumination of a mystical revelation?).

"Swastika," an 11-minute epic that vaguely recalls Tim Buckley's "Goodbye and Hello," will likely draw the most critical attention, but my favorite track on Void is "Forest on Fire," a stark blues lament overrun by gradually intensifying noise brambles from an Oberheim synth serendipitously found in the studio. Imagine Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music encroaching upon a Leonard Cohen ballad. Bleak—and fantastic.

On the other hand, Nicole Willis and her Soul Investigators party like it's 1969. Before we even get to the music, we confront Willis (ex-Deee-lite and Brand New Heavies) on the cover of Keep Reachin' Up (Light in the Attic) shooting a knee-trembling come-hither glance. (I could expend hundreds of words on her lips alone, but let's stay on topic.) Turns out the music itself is plenty seductive, too.

The Brooklyn-born Willis is backed by a group of Finnish funkateers, including the Pekka Kuusisto String Orchestra and her husband, Jimi Tenor, who contributes flute, organ, sax and orchestration. You'd be forgiven for thinking that she actually enlisted ringers from Detroit, Philadelphia and Memphis; these Scandinavians got soul. Time to re-assess biases about our Nordic brethren. . . .

On disc opener "Feeling Free," Willis waxes hedonistic over Isaac Hayes-like orchestral funk ("I got no time for singing the blues/I'm feeling mighty fine"), resurrecting the tradition of the classy party song that celebrates music, dancing and losing oneself in those pleasures. "If This Ain't Love (Don't Know What Is)" cruises pell-mell over Motown's upscale soul boulevards, as suavely joyous as a Smokey and Diana harmonizing in a Cadillac.

The title track is a strident motivator that advises listeners to continue striving for "the real thing." (It's up to you to determine what exactly that real thing is.) Willis extends herself more strenuously here than anywhere else, but she's not really a belter; rather, she excels in more subdued forms where poised phrasing and mellow positivity trump taut neck sinews and sweat beads. She's more Dusty Springfield than Aretha Franklin—or, indeed, fellow LITA diva Betty Davis. This is exemplified by "No One's Gonna Love You," a slinky, slow, soul burner with pensive organ solos and swaggering string work in which Willis achingly wonders why things soured with her man and states her case for superiority over her successor.

Willis' predominately celebratory vibes contrast sharply with Tiny Vipers' questing, stark metaphysics, but together these two artists form a complementary yin-yang equation. Both fulfill crucial functions in any well-rounded music lover's life.

For more info, you can find Tiny Vipers at www.subpop.com ; Nicole Willis at www.lightintheattic.net .

DSEGAL@OCWEEKLY.COM

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