It’s been almost 20 years since Lisa Germano released her hazy dream-pop opus Geek the Girl back in 1994. Her unique brand of then-4AD indie introspection hit a nerve among diehard critics and casual fans alike, and this surge of abrupt notoriety propelled her onto mainstream radio stations, a still relevant MTV, and many ‘94 year-end lists. Though her subsequent records never garnered the same level of critical and commercial success as that album, she never ceased to record and play shows of all sizes. But her music, specifically her mid-career releases, has been slowly undergoing a critical reevaluation. Albums like Lullabies for a Liquid Pig and Slide have been gaining esteem as precursors to more current releases by artists such as Nina Nastasia and Shannon Wright.
As her first album in four years, No Elephants finds Germano digging back into her dream pop roots and coming away with an album full of luxuriant melodies, hushed vocals, and delicate instrumentation. There are no concessions to any particular fad or sounds across this record, and Germano sounds as loose and at ease as she did back in 1994 when she astonished people with her affecting dream folk aesthetic. By opening the album with the sounds of birds chirping, the music could very well have come across as undeservedly fey or overly sentimental. But far from backing herself into a corner, Germano uses these sounds to set the mood for the rest of the songs on No Elephants. Equal parts naturalistic feeling and warmly emotional artifice, this record sets her up as both the musical innovator and creative stalwart—not to mention the record sounds gorgeous without feeling overly concerned with its own production.
One of the most noticeable aspects of No Elephants is Germano’s use of repeated sounds and musical motifs as connective tissue between the songs. Whether it’s a tone that sounds suspiciously like a child’s play telephone or the irritating sound that some electronic equipment makes if you get your cell phone too close, she makes no apologies for the sometimes jarring electronic flourishes that are interspersed throughout these tracks. But the heart and soul of these songs still lay in their traditionalist attitudes. We may get some unexpected electronic subterfuge but Germano still bases most of the songs on No Elephants around her immaculate piano playing and hushed, though never fully obscured, vocals.
Tracks like “Apathy and the Devil” and “Ruminants” find her showing off a seemingly new set of musical chops—namely her new found appreciation for subtle sonic manipulation—while others like “No Elephants” and album stand-out “And So On” set clearly defined guidelines that link these songs to others from her past records. And though she does favor the calming grace of gently tapped piano keys and somber violin on No Elephants over the more textured guitar work from her earlier records, her lyrics still seem as visceral and serrated as ever, opening the album with the lines “Ruminants/I need four stomachs to deal…” and ending with “…four stomachs/throw up/start over…” Not the most upbeat outlook but one that matches her often visceral and piercing lyrics.
Germano’s integration of the melodic and electronic doesn’t always work to her advantage though, as tracks like the instrumental “Dance of the Bees,” with its buzzing electrical interference, and the distractingly atonal “Haunted” seem more like experimental afterthoughts than fully fleshed out ideas. The album does finish strong with some of Germano’s most cohesive and engaging songwriting to date. The previously mentioned “And So On” and album closer “Strange Bird” seem to be the perfect examples of what she hoped to accomplish on this record, with the electronic samples interacting seamlessly with her affecting piano playing and lilting vocals. No Elephants may not be as instantly regarded as some of her earlier work but it shows that Germano is not afraid to take her established sound into new and often unexpected directions. If this record gets people who may not be familiar with her discography to take a peek into her substantial back catalog, then all the better. As a stepping stone forward and backward, No Elephants preserves her musical legacy while subtly altering her own approach to these sounds. As an introduction to Germano and her music, you could do a hell of a lot worse than spending an afternoon with No Elephants.