Tiny Vipers' Sub Pop debut, Hands Across the Void, is an album about hope and desolation, about how those opposing senses feed on each other despite our best efforts to control them. The album is a marriage of other dualisms as well: the individual and the infinite, the mundane and the fantastic, the forest fire that ravages and the resulting ash that gives birth.

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Jesy Fortino, the solo songwriter behind Tiny Vipers, has long dwelled in the parallels and contradictions of expansive ambience and severe minimalism. In Hands Across the Void, Fortino delivers an album whose spare arrangements belie its fullness. In the phantom landscapes conjured by Tiny Vipers, it's as if one plus zero equals infinity.

With little more than her plaintive voice and skeletal guitar lines, Fortino crafts a rich mythology of songs that evoke and elegize the hidden mysticism of the everyday world. While she has professed severe stage fright in the past, in the studio, Fortino is at her most self-assured and confident. Her voice has lost some of the sharpness of her earlier, self-released demos, tempering its steeliness for a subtler warmth and depth that remains uniquely distinct. Some of Tiny Vipers' tonal evolution can be attributed to collaborator Ben Cissner, whose accompaniment of barely-there guitar echoes and tastefully placed harmonic ambience contributes to the album's haunting beauty.

Hands Across the Void begins with "Campfire Resemblance," a song that Fortino says she wrote specifically as an introduction to the album. It appropriately resembles a campfire, dry and softly stirring as Fortino slowly intones, "It was a dream that brought you to doubt/A dreamlike sensation/It was a fog that washed the fire out/It was a fog that washed the fire out." Fortino's lyrics are often cryptic, emotive rather than emotional. But taken as a whole, they point toward a struggle against fatalism and a belief that one can choose to transcend the mundane.

"There are all these crazy things you can't comprehend," Fortino tells me over coffee. "Life is just too big and weird. If you're sensitive to it, there are little things that will help you out, subtle patterns you can pick up on that tell you, 'If I do this, then this will happen.' A lot of people overlook them... the hands across the void are little ways out of weird predicaments. It's like the lyrics of ['Campfire Resemblance'] say, 'It could be a lantern that guides you out.'"

But choices in Fortino's songs are rarely so clear, and the paths rarely so direct that light alone can shine the way forward. In "Shipwreck," a character is marooned and isolated, destined only to die, but simple defiance transforms the song's despair into something inspiring. Fortino sings, "We want to struggle and survive/We want to live 'cause we know that life/It's beautiful, though surreal at times."

The album's climax is the epic "Swastika." At nearly 11 minutes, the song explores how choice imbues power and meaning on symbols otherwise free of morality. Invoking images of war, fever, love, and light once more, the lyrics read like koans: "If dark were overthrown by the light/Would the night turn to day/Would it all turn to gray." A miniature song cycle in itself, "Swastika" ends by contemplating how we often carry the symbols we've granted such import into complete isolation.

It's Fortino's ability to transmute lines that could be macabre and alien into moments of familiar tenderness and vulnerability that defines Tiny Vipers. In their transcendence of simple binary oppositions, each song on Hands Across the Void resonates with the others. Like fortunes cast from bones or dice: "You could look at it linearly but the story would change if you threw all [the songs] down a different way," Fortino says. That mutability would be fine with Fortino, fascinated by the invisible relationships that guide her music and all the coincidences and contradictions such faith promises to blur. recommended