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Lisa Germano - No Elephants

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Artist: Lisa Germano

Album: No Elephants

Label: Badman

Review date: Feb. 5, 2013

Lisa Germano’s voice is a delicate, wavery thing, whistling with breath in the high range, blurrily sweet in the middle. There’s a sweetness in the way she sings, a sweetness that co-exists, somehow, with surreal, mad intensity. She sounds like she’s singing a lullaby a lot of the time, though it’s an unsettling, frightening lullaby, one that would keep you awake. Likewise her music sheathes wild, dangerous ideas in a silky shroud of loveliness. Here, on her ninth solo album, she works with the most serene of materials — classically-tinged piano, violin and cool spectral singing — to conjure a world off-kilter.

In No Elephants, Germano uses a good deal of animal imagery, returning again and again to the idea of an imbalance between humans and the natural world. Besides the pachyderm of the title, she seems most concerned with bees, a linchpin of the global food cycle now under stress. “Dance of the Bees,” an instrumental, incorporates a synthesized, bee-sound into its mesh of drumming, Spanish guitar and cell phone, and when “No Elephants” imagines a world where there’s “no room for a queen,” she is clearly singing about a queen bee. Yet, there is everywhere evidence of animals, in the crows that caw in the beginning of “Ruminants,” in the barn-yard symphony that breaks up “And So On,” in the “Strange Birds” that close the album. “Who can see, who can see, where are all the animals, there are days, they go away,” she sings in “Haunted,” but the animals, on this album, are everywhere.

Not that Germano is making many explicit points about the eco-system or species extinction. Her lyrics are too oblique, fleeting and fragmentary for sustained argument. Not really a storyteller — or even a scene setter — she instead presents flickering images, evocative but open-ended, subject to multiple interpretations. There’s a slipperiness to her songs, as if they may have started out as one thing, then shape-shifted to another. They bloom from the quietest, most minimal art songs into dizzying explosions of sonic texture, from minor-key confessions into sudden major-key affirmation. Listen, for instance, to the way that “Haunted” moves from austerity to sudden blossoming lushness, whenever Germano sings about the (clearly attractive) concept of “safety.” Or check out the way massed vocals lift “Last Straws for Sale” from plaintive ghost-song into swoony hedonism, the layers of singing, violin and piano almost overwhelming after the nakedness of the verse.

Germano uses mostly the organic textures of piano and violin to make her case, but she also plays in interesting ways with noise. “Apathy and the Devil” wafts over the spitting friction of electronic rhythms, bits of distortion rising up and falling back between piano chords. “Back to Earth,” despite its whole grain title, is almost entirely synthetic, built from glowing keyboard lines and weird cell phone blips and jingles. Even the music-box waltz of “Ruminants” — on its face classically simple and utterly pure — has a distant whistling echo in the upper registers of its mix, bits of ringing phones, the jangle of metal, all barely heard, subliminal.

The sound is beautifully clear, focused around Germano’s voice and piano, but allowing you to hear other, smaller elements of the recording. Germano worked with former R.E.M. producer Jamie Candiloro to record No Elephants, and he is said to have created many of the unusual sound textures, the buzz and hiss and blippiness that frames Germano’s frail voice in subtle ways. She also brought in Sebastian Steinberg, ex of Soul Coughing, to play acoustic bass. You can hear him most clearly on “…And So On,” picking out some lovely jazz-tinged runs among the animal sounds.

No Elephants is a gorgeous album, but maybe the most interesting thing about it is the way it bites through the beauty. Unsettling lyrics and ominous noises pierce right through the surface loveliness, leaving it still lovely, but more dangerous than you thought.

By Jennifer Kelly

Other Reviews of Lisa Germano

In the Maybe World

Magic Neighbor

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Find out more about Badman

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