Self-billed as “The Emotional Wench,” Indiana native Lisa Germano first surfaced as the fiddler with John Cougar Mellencamp’s band, but her own work is light years away from the heartland swagger of her erstwhile employer. The self-released On the Way Down From the Moon Palace showcases country-tinged folk-pop with mandolin and accordion augmenting guitars and a tastefully deployed drum machine (although three tracks gain extra oomph from ex- bandmate Kenny Aronoff’s drumming). Punctuated by contemplative, exquisite instrumentals, songs like “Bye Bye Little Doggie” and the Dylanesque blues “Dig My Own Grave” dispense world-weary wisdom about disintegrating relationships and bad, bad boys, while the almost Enya- esque “The Other One” suggests her future stylistic direction. Germano’s papery, intimate vocals and expressive violin hooks suffuse the music with a melancholy that would only increase on her next two albums.
Produced by Daniel Lanois cohort Malcolm Burn, the brilliant Happiness drops most of the country flavor and incorporates a bleak, rootsy twist on the English shoegazer sound. The album is an extended meditation on depression, a suite of consistently excellent songs documenting the sarcasm and cynicism that snowball until life itself seems like a shallow, pointless joke. Within this realistic mix of vulnerability and strength, optimism and despair, candor is the reason that Happiness is ultimately uplifting. “Give it up, try again/Give it up, try again,” Germano sings on the title track, “Ain’t life fun?”
Germano did try again. Inconsiderate Bitch contains remixes of five Happiness songs, none of which appear on the second version of the album — released after Germano left Capitol for 4AD. Resequenced and partly remixed by Burn and Germano, the reworked Happiness amplifies the ethereal 4AD sound which lurked in the original, drops the instrumental “Breathe Acrost Texas” and a superfluous cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” and adds two fine new songs, “Destroy the Flower” and “The Earth.” The effort focuses and magnifies the album’s moody impact, rendering it even more atmospheric and intimate than the original — if that’s possible. Not just an excellent 3 a.m. my-lover-just-walked- out-the-door record, but a moving and inspiring document of one person’s struggle with depression. Essential listening for anyone who’s had a dark day or two.
The stark, almost unnervingly candid Geek the Girl is not an album one listens to lightly. Produced by Germano and Burn, it’s a seething, intense and relentlessly dark record whose terror is loudest in its most hushed spaces — and there are a lot of them, as Germano’s whispered delivery and skeletal, home-recorded arrangements delve deeply into fear, insecurity and anxiety. Her liner notes say it’s the story of a girl who gets taken advantage of sexually but still believes in the redemptive power of beauty and the love of a man — “ha ha ha what a geek!” Germano, who has been plagued by a stalker for years, lets it all go in the harrowing “…A Psychopath,” which incorporates a genuine recording of a terror-stricken woman making a 911 call as an intruder breaks into her home. “Cry Wolf” is a searing analysis of date rape dispensed with Twin Peaks-like eeriness, while the dirgey instrumental “Phantom Love” says just as much as any of the songs with words. Although not as tuneful as Happiness, Geek the Girl is substantially more gripping.
Besides an edit of the title track, Cry Wolf features remixes of Geek the Girl‘s “Cancer of Everything” and “Sexy Little Girl Princess,” an edit of “Cry Wolf” and the hitherto unreleased “The Mirror Is Gone,” a trenchant gem left over from the Happiness sessions.
While just about anything following Geek the Girl would sound like a party disc by comparison, Germano’s mood is noticeably brighter on Excerpts From a Love Circus. The playful spirit that flourished on Happiness makes a welcome comeback on songs like “I Love a Snot,” “Lovesick” and “Small Heads,” which builds a dinky piano riff into one of the most joyous songs of Germano’s career. But the somber tone of Geek is carried over in such touches as the mournful, distant meowing of Germano’s cats and “Victoria’s Secret,” in which she surveys the emotional toll the impossible perfection of advertising imagery inflicts on the psyche of the average woman. Love Circus is Germano’s most personable album, and the one on which she seems to be having the most fun.
Slide is the lowest-key album in Germano’s catalog. Lacking the adventurous moments and catchy songs of Happiness and Love Circus or the harrowing intensity of Geek the Girl, it’s the closest thing to background music she’s ever released. It’s not bad — “Electrified” is absolutely charming — but not particularly memorable either.
Following Slide, Germano recorded an album with Giant Sand under the name OP8, played with the Smashing Pumpkins and got a job in a California bookstore. Her return to recording, Lullaby for Liquid Pig, chronicles her struggles with depression and alcoholism. (“Liquid pig” is what she calls her drunken self.) The music largely abandons any semblance to pop music for claustrophobic tone poems and wispy vocals. It’s like Nico’s Marble Index recorded by a polite Midwesterner instead of a scary German — chilling stuff, but it invites sympathy rather than dread. “Candy” and “It’s Party Time” cut through the gloom, but don’t necessarily lighten up the proceedings; imagine My Bloody Valentine played at the wrong speed. Germano’s self-loathing on this excellent but troubling disc is as palpable as Kurt Cobain’s or Ian Curtis’, but she shares enough winks to (mostly) allay fears that her biography will end with the same chapter. Still, one wishes she would lighten up: she seems like a very nice person who doesn’t deserve this kind of abuse, even from herself. Lullaby for Liquid Pig was reissued in 2007 with a bonus disc of live cuts and demos for its follow-up, In the Maybe World.
Having dealt with addiction, sexual abuse, depression and romantic disillusion in her music, Germano uses In the Maybe World to tackle the minor topic of Death itself. In a not very encouraging development, she doesn’t consider it too bad: “I want to go into oblivion,” she sings, “Oblivion, my friend.” The music, a continuation of the sound of Liquid Pig, is somber but lovely, washes of sound that could serve as the soundtrack to the interior of David Lynch’s head. As always, though, Germano manages to lighten things up with riffs of humor as dry as the Sahara and black as midnight. Only she could record a song like “Red Thread,” where the call-and-response chorus of “Go to hell / Fuck you” sounds like a soothing lullaby. In the Maybe World is another challenging, disturbing work from a distinctive, compelling artist.