Lisa Germano No Elephants (Badman Recordings) - On the piano-based No Elephants, singer/instrumentalist Lisa Germano manages the almost impossible feat of taking seemingly elliptical lyrics, and wrapping them around her emotionally-bare, hushed singing - turning in a tour-de-force of measured observations and introspective musing. As on the quiet opener, "Ruminants" field recordings of nature set the tone for a reflective meditation on life, equal parts observation and well, rumination: "I need four stomachs to deal/brainwashed hogwash/throw up, start over/a graceful sonata..." In a recent interview, Germano confided that she chose the title No Elephants as an indicator that this album would not parse any words, and convey exactly what's been on her mind since 2009's Magic Neighbor.
And frankly, Ms. Germano is pissed off - with our decimation of the environment, our apparent lack of social conscience, and society's general ennui, eloquently summarized on "Apathy And The Devil." Framed by a lo-fi trip-hop beat and Germano's stately piano, Germano declares "The weeds beneath my bed are growing/With all this dirty waste around/It's only apathy and the Devil, they ruin everything/And I just watch the world exploding." Running only slighter over a half-hour long, Germano weaves these delicate, trippy melodies against equally sparse incidental music, created by her and producer/sampler Jamie Cordiano: buzzing bees, ringing cellphones, the cackle of geese flying south, jangling car keys and the like juxtaposed against a lone guitar or piano line and minimal percussion.
Surprisingly, none of it feels like filler - if anything, they accentuate the mood so that Lisa's haunting, child-like warble disconcerts as often as it mollifies. Whether seeking emotional sanctuary on "Back To Earth" or questioning indifference on "A Feast" ("Under your collar and inside your bones/Give your good friends a break/What of the ivory vase? What of the succulent pig?") Germano's confessionals reveal a naked honesty that can be too heart-wrenching to bear. One of No Elephants most beautiful songs is also its saddest. "Diamonds" (inspired by the exploitation of mining workers in the Ivory Coast) opens with Lisa on violin, accompanied by only a gentle hum, before launching into a sad waltz. Germano's voice caresses the chamber-like duet of piano and strings: "Such a cold world, such a cold time/When man goes down so low."
During my interview with Germano, she said "Diamonds" was one of the hardest tunes for her to write - not just because of its musical complexity, but because she longed to convey something meaningful without coming off as preachy (the line "Sorrow all around/Put your hands down" refers to the brutality of indigent workers having their hands hacked off by rival competitors.) My response to her, which I'll reiterate here is that "Diamonds" is an incredible song; beautiful, sad, majestic, weighty and persuasive. Not since the work of auteurs Kate Bush, Rickie Lee Jones or Lisa Herman's "Swelling Valley" (from The Lodge's Smell Of A Friend) has a tune touched me this deeply. "And So On" (featuring a mesmerizing upright bass by Sebastian Steinberg) follows, managing to kick the pathos up a notch with couplets like "And when you break a heart/It's always after you/Haunted, as a torture does..." No one will ever confuse Germano's work with the disposable pop proliferating on Billboard, that's for sure.
Last weekend, the 55th annual Grammy Awards gave its prized trophies to the likes of Adele, Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé. Popular artists all, and no doubt they shift a lot of units for their respective labels, but I thought like the Oscars, the Grammys were intended to give recognition to outstanding recordings, not just best-selling albums. If that's not haughty rhetoric then next year, No Elephants is worthy of, at the very least, a Grammy nomination. In a just universe, the Kate Bushes, Lisa Germanoes and Rickie Lee Joneses of the world would prove the audience for thoughtful, insightful and challenging music is not marginal or limited, and these creative, inspired artists would get both the validation and commercial success they richly deserve. Alas, this is not the world we currently live in. I'm not sure if it ever was, and frankly my dear, that pisses me off.