An above-average dream-pop album by an acclaimed avant-songwriter gets the double-disc re-release treatment (when a single-disc would've suited just fine).
It's kind of a record about addictions … but trying to see if you have them or not. Well, anyway, it's kind of about that.
-- Lisa Germano, from the live intro to "It's Party Time"
What makes an album truly "classic"?
Commonly, we call an album a classic because it's merely groundbreaking. See: Pet Sounds. Or Daydream Nation. Or any one of the other countless LPs that make it onto those "Greatest Album of All Time" lists that comes out every six months or so. However, sales alone are never a judge of greatness. If that were the case, then we should be seeing a box-set for the complete recording sessions of Quiet Riot's Metal Health sometime before Christmas. Not only does a "classic" LP have to have timeless songs, but it also has to be recognized as a classic -- it's a disc that's actively sought after because so many people before have told you that it's great (and are usually correct in that assumption). The Velvet Underground never broke any sales records, but just about every single record store in America has The Velvet Underground & Nico lying in its pop-rock corner, patiently waiting to change the ears of some unsuspecting new listener. A "classic" will be discussed, dissected, anthologized, and quoted for years to come.
So, is Lisa Germano's Lullaby for Liquid Pig a classic?
The question is brought up due to its recent double-disc re-release, itself a self-proclaimed indicator of "classic" status. Ultimately, this is a tricky album to analyze, both in its content and its context. If we start with the latter, we learn that the album (Germano's sixth) was released a mere four years ago. This does not seem to be ample time for a disc to reach that famed "classic" status. It never sold well (as a matter of fact, Germano didn't garner any chart ink until 2006), but it sold well enough. Germano was coming down off of a critical high following her late '90s albums Excerpts from a Love Circus and Slide, balancing her keen pop sensibilities with a slight avant-garde feel that was interesting but never alienating (after all, we're talking about the woman who was once John Mellencamp's violinist). For this album, she went into the studio with an A-list cast of musicians (including both Johnny Marr and Neil Finn) and set out to create the ultimate dream-pop album. After all was said and done, Lullaby for Liquid Pig was a circumstance of bad luck, landing on a label that wound up closing up shop a few years later while garnering mostly positive reviews, though not universal acclaim.
This backstory sounds very Behind the Music in nature, but none of it really matters when you sit down and listen to the disc itself. Filled with enough reverb to kill a horse, opener "Nobody's Playing" is a piano-ballad that's so airy, it feels like it just might drift away at any given moment. With its lyrics depicting a state of self-imposed isolation, we get a sense that -- only one track in -- this is the kind of disc to listen to while sitting on the roof of your house while looking at the stars shine in their haunting 4 a.m. glow. A pretty thought, yes, but the dreamlike quality of a majority of the songs makes the melodies, hooks, and words all blur together, making it hard to distinguish between "Nobody's Playing" and the late-album ballad "Into the Night". Furthermore, audiences will ultimately be divided by Germano's lyrical minimalism. Take the first few lines of closer "… to dream":
Only when it's real
When it speaks to you
And no one else can hear
Don't give up your dream
It's really all you have
And I don't want to see you die
If we accept Germano's notion of this being an album about addiction, then these lines could easily reflect on the idea of a dream gradually dying … or it could be an affirming, inspirational anthem meant for a friend. Ultimately, it's hard to say what any of these ballads really mean, but your admiration/intolerance of Germano will ultimately stem from whether you take her words at face value or if you will apply your own meaning to them. In either case, one thing is definite: her vocal conviction -- in every single track -- rings as clear as a bell jar. She sings like she means it, and though we may not know the exact moral of her lyrical stories, we know that she knows what she's saying, even though she's choosing not to tell us. It's a bit of an emotional tease, but -- in the long run -- it pays off.
Yet Lullaby for Liquid Pig truly excels when it drops the reverb for unabashed musical clarity. "From a Shell" is nothing short of stunning. Carrying an ambiguously optimistic message about love, "Shell" feels like it belongs in a priceless music box, its melody so astonishingly gentle and precious. "Candy" -- on the other hand -- is Top 40 pop viewed through a foggy, keyboard-fueled kaleidoscope, and (hands-down) it's the most immediately accessible song on the whole album. Finally, the string-quartet-underwater feel of the title track is tragically, quietly menacing with perfectly timed off-key notes that appear sporadically before the violins raise the chorus into a massive, heavenly yearning. It's these songs that truly show just how majestic pop music can be.
The bonus disc of material, however, is extremely hit-or-miss. The home demos are fantastic: the original "Candy" brings the violin front and center, giving the song an unexpected-yet-welcome Celtic vibe. The demo of "Dream Glasses Off" is doubled in tempo with a programmed drum beat and dreamy Buddy Holly guitars -- both of these alternate versions add a whole different perspective to their originals (plus it has three completely unreleased songs that are easily on par with the rest of Pig). The live song "suites", however, leave much to be desired. Left to her own devices, Germano is a fine if unspectacular performer. What makes the live songs particularly maddening, however, is how multiple songs are strung together onto a single track. The first live recording, as a matter of fact, is five songs strung together into one 14-minute suite. What's worse? Germano talks between these songs … and offers few insights (except that "Into the Maybe World" is about her cats). These live recordings are, in the end, just coffee house ramblings that just happen to be recorded in Lisbon and L.A.'s famed Largo club. They're totally inessential, and very much weigh this "bonus" disc down in light of the great demo material that surrounds it.
So, is Lullaby of Liquid Pig a "classic" in the truest sense of the word? No, it's not. However, it's still a great album, a strong placeholder in Germano's canon, and an excellent example of dream-pop done right. Lisa Germano may yet release an end-to-end "classic" LP, but Lullaby for Liquid Pig -- though good -- isn't it.