When you cast a look over her resume, it’s astonishing that Indiana-born songwriter Lisa Germano isn’t more well known: Session work with Bob Dylan and The Indigo Girls (?!); albums released on Capitol and 4AD to accolades in Rolling Stone and Spin; collaborations involving Johnny Marr, Phil Selway, Giant Sand, Calexico, among others; oceans of praise from Swan/Angel of Light Michael Gira, who has released her last few albums on his Young God imprint; stints accompanying pop legends like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Sheryl Crow. She’s worked with more rock superstars than most people have had jobs, yet she still remains appealingly enigmatic and (this is a dangerous word to throw around in talking about artists, but still) childlike. There’s something about her music that manages to be completely open and simple and yet at the same time elusive and mysterious, much in the way of the wisdom of little children. Her music is not, thankfully, cloyingly cute like most of the other artists who happen to strike, intentionally or not, the childlike aesthetic.
Take, for example, her Ampeater B-side “The Prince of Plati,” drawn from her latest Young God release Magic Neighbor. The chord progressions are fairly simple, the vocals strong and at the fore in a style that calls to mind PJ Harvey and other un-wispy female singers, the lyrics direct and unambiguous in their plea to a lover for a little comfort and escape and play. The song is appealing in part because it doesn’t shy away from directness in search of some kind of untouchably cool ambiguity, something that is irritatingly common in younger songwriters. In fact, it’s so direct and intimate, it almost feels voyeuristic to listen to it, something that’s enhanced by lyrics like “oh, nobody lookin/oh nobody see.” The whole song stands, lyrically, as an attack on the narrator’s own jadedness and an embrace of transient joys. She wants to “do the things we did before we thought we knew,” to return to a time before her assumptions about what life is or isn’t robbed her of the freedom to step outside her tired routines. The mentions of storytelling and play, simplistic and well-worn metaphors (sadness = blue), really draw out the childlike core of the song, making it easy to understand why Gira has said that her music reminds him of “early Disney songs.”
The unadorned and subtle arrangement enhances the simplicity and innocence of the song perfectly. The chiming, upper register piano definitely brings the Disney thing back to mind, especially in the slightly off-kilter lydian melody that closes out the song. As any modern jazz musician knows, the sharp 11 is the magic note that makes everything sound floaty and ethereal. Like all the other arrangements on Magic Neighbor, it was mostly worked out on the spot, and you can hear this in listening. The bass and pedal steel parts are simple and they never step on the vocals, which remain right up front, inches from your ears, instead choosing to fill out the backdrop of the song with airy clouds of sound. Germano’s voice walks a fine line between the breathy vulnerability inherent to the lyrics and necessary to a song so intimate, and the strength that is obviously there to be tapped. Rather than giving us everything she has, she draws us in by holding back.
A-side “Reptile” works a similar magic, working a very familiar I IV V chord progression and bare bones rock beat into something that somehow sounds strange. This simplicity is contrasted by the totally bizarre lyrics about light freaking out dying, God being a soul masturbator, and extraterrestrials handing out pamphlets of light to singers. I have no idea, but it certainly puts some images in your head. “Reptile” was originally recorded for 7 Worlds Collide, an Oxfam-benefiting charity CD curated by Liam Finn (of Split Enz and Crowded House fame), and it features Finn and Wilco drummer/improvising musician Glenn Kotche collaborating (I think) on one the most awesomely asymmetrical drum parts I’ve ever heard in my life. It kind of sounds like they brought them into the studio, and had them play along with the song the first time they’d ever heard it. It’s a kind of spontaneity that is so seldom heard in recorded music in a day and age when people tend to favor rigidly orchestrated parts over the conversational style of several musicians playing together, playing off one another (one could easily make the argument that this is a self-perpetuating cycle caused by a simultaneous rise of overdubbing and decline in technical skill among rock musicians, but that argument is probably best reserved for another forum). The song itself is so easy to follow, and the main bass and snare pattern so constant, that the percussion track is able to slip into part after part on instrument after instrument (congas, woodblock, rhumba-infused rim clicks, big cymbal splashes, laconic hi-hat, atonal marimba, thundering toms, metallic shakers) and never risk losing the listener. The fact that chorus of women’s voices that kicks in on the chorus sounds like a group of untrained singers in a room (you can hear them laughing sporadically clapping during the song) only adds to the feeling of looseness and lightness that makes “Reptile” so lovely and lively.
Germano’s music these days is “about trying to be happy with all the sad shit in the world, dealing with your own fights and being the mighty one who rises above it,” and that is as straight-forward and noble a mission statement as I’ve heard from a musician in a long while. It’s plain as day when you listen to her songs that this is the truth, and, for those of us who’d rather explore than be inscrutably hip, it’s as refreshing as a spray mister full of cold water on a summer afternoon in the park.
The Prince of Plati
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem065/02 The Prince of Plati.mp3