There is a certain stately musicianship on constant display throughout Lisa Germano’s latest album, Magic neighbor. It’s not terribly surprising to hear, considering Germano’s reputation as a tremendously talented multi-instrumentalist, but this instrumental refinement is intriguingly belied by a series of curious sonic choices and personal yet cryptic songwriting. Magic neighbor has no shortage of elegant, delicate piano and understated strings, but it’s the little idiosyncrasies that drift in and out of the margins that truly define Germano as such as curious and unique talent.
Take late-album highlight “suli-mon”: what initially sounds like an overly sugary faux-children’s song is thrown off-kilter by some bizarre piano key mashing. Then the vocals enter. Any hope that Germano’s voice or lyrics will help bring the intent of the song into clearer focus is quickly eradicated by Germano’s slurry mumbling. Then, as if “soli-mon” were not abstruse enough already, another set of vocals is brought in to compete with the other vocalist for the listener’s attention. It’s Germano again, only this time, her voice is playful and excitable, sort of reminiscent of the tone adults adopt when reading a children’s story. Oh, and her voice is being played backwards.
If you think the description of “soli-mon” makes the song sound too precious and artsy by half, I can hardly blame you. But it works. I swear it does. Germano clearly could write straight folk tunes all day, but her devotion to her eccentricities is one of the elements that makes her stand out amongst her peers. It adds a bewitching element of mystery to her already absorbing music. In fact, it’s lamentable that Magic neighbor places less of an emphasis on those quirks than it probably should.
But it would surely grow tiresome if Germano were all quirks with nothing enjoyable to hang them on (Juno, anyone? Zing!). Fortunately, Germano’s ear for melody is frequently as strong as ever on Magic neighbor, most noticeably on “a million times”. Germano imbues this sweetly melancholy tale about a pair of lovers who break up and reconcile over and over again with a combination of genuine pathos and wry humor (hear the bell ding when Germano declares the relationship is “done”). The central melodic hook is not only strong enough to repeat for the duration of the song, but it’s repetitiveness jibes well with the cyclical nature of the story being told.
Despite these attributes, Magic neighbor is not exactly the type of album that’s easy to love. It’s unfailingly pretty, and Germano manages to be both emotionally transparent and fascinatingly opaque, which is a fine line to tread. Nevertheless, even with a relatively short running time (thirty-three minutes), Magic neighbor is occasionally quite leadenly paced. And though there are undeniable standouts, eventually every track feels lighter than air, giving Magic neighbor a sort of ethereal, amorphous quality. But repeated listens make it slightly easier to distinguish each song, and hopefully Germano’s audience will go at least that far, because the rewards are ample.