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Jennifer Gentle's Joyful Psyche

With a name borrowed from "Lucifer Sam" ("Jennifer Gentle/ You're a witch/ You're the left side/ He's the right side, oh no!") and a dreamily lysergic sound, the Italian duo Jennifer Gentle clearly know their way around the Pink Floyd catalogue. "Pink Floyd is the first band I loved, I grew up with them," drummer Alessio Gastaldello said in a recent email, "but I don't think they are an obsession for our band."

Despite the strong echoes of Syd Barrett in the band's fourth full-length, Valende, he adds, he and his collaborator, guitar/bass player Marco Fasolo, draw on a wide range of influences: "I love so many bands… Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Can, Amon Duul, Television, Talking Heads, Miles Davis, David Bowie, Beatles, Rolling Stones. Marco deeply loves '50s rock 'n' roll and garage. I think we love each artist who have great personality. We don't care if it's metal or country. We love also Queen and Elton John!"

Gastaldello and Fasolo met in Padua, Italy in 1999, introduced by Marco Damiani, who now manages the band's Italian label, SillyBoy Entertainment. "I had a venue, Plan 9 (from outer space), a poor but cool place… a lot of great international bands played there," Gastaldello explained. "One night a couple of (drunken) teenagers came to ask to play. They were good, so I booked a concert for them and I became a fan." The band's members included Fasolo and Isacco Maretto; later, when that outfit broke up, they asked Alessio to join them in a new project, which became Jennifer Gentle.

The band toured with Steve Shelley's Two Dollar Guitar in 2000, and by the end of that year, had a song on the Homesleep Home compilation, which also featured Notwist and Quickspace. In 2001, the band's first full-length, I Am You Are, appeared, laying the template for Jennifer Gentle's loose, whimsical psychedelia. Funny Creatures Lane followed early in 2002, showcasing a wider array of instrumental sounds, not just guitar, drums and bass, but keyboards, accordion, sitar, strings and kazoo.

Later in 2002, the duo toured with Makoto Kawabata (of Acid Mothers Temple) in Italy. "Our friend Marco sent [Kawabata] our album and got in touch with him by e-mail. He loved our record and asked us if we can book a couple of concert for him and if we wanted to play together," Gastaldello remembered. "The first night we jammed and recorded what became The Wrong Cage, our live album with him."

He added, "Playing with Acid Mothers Temple was very cool, even though in Italy there isn't a big attention around them like USA or UK or France. Italy, musically speaking, is a third world… I don't know if we are similar to Acid Mothers Temple, maybe when we play long jam there could be something similar, but we work also with pop songs."

Work with Kawabata — and a growing cadre of high-profile U.S. fans — brought Jennifer Gentle play on influential radio stations, including New Jersey's WFMU and New York's WNYU. Signed by Sub Pop in 2004, they've now released Valende, their first album to be widely available in America.

According to Gastaldello, the new album continues themes and ideas the band has always explored, in live performances and home-produced recordings. "I think that the new album is better played, recorded and produced. It has a more acoustic feeling but it is not far from the previous two," he said, adding, "It deals with dreams and nightmares, fear and love, there are stupid pop songs, atmospheric tracks and one totally freak-out jam… always the same job… but now we are more experienced…."

Fascinatingly varied, Valende careens wildly from garage-pop exuberance ("I Do Dream You") to gentle melodies of heartbreaking beauty ("The Garden" parts one and two) to wild bouts of experimental frenzy (as in the seven-and-a-half minute instrumental improvisations of "Hessesopoa"). In fact, "Hessesopoa" is sandwiched between two mesmerizingly lovely intervals, forcing the listener to change gears abruptly. "Our idea was to build the record with different levels, like circles in the water, going from pop songs to soft songs and then to a complete deconstructed core," Gastaldello explained .

As in the past, Jennifer Gentle recorded their latest album at Fasolo's home studio, which Gastaldello describes as well equipped but old-fashioned. "We used 8 tracks, a one-inch tape recorder, one tube microphone, one compressor, one pre-mic, one analogic reverb and one analogic echo," he said. "We mixed in 1/4 inch tape machine… no computer, no pro-tools."

The band also used a variety of instruments — not just the typical rock warhorses, but glockenspiel, flute, organ, harmonium and, again, kazoo. Careful listeners may even detect a helium balloon's squeak, blending in with the guitar solo in "I Do Dream You." "We always look for the right sound," Gastaldello said. "If we can't find it in guitars or keyboards we use different stuff, like deflating a helium balloon. For us it is not necessary to learn how to play the instruments… it would be a good thing just having more stuff in our studio… I like very much timpani used in classical music but I never played them."

Jennifer Gentle recently finished their first North American tour, playing 40 shows across major American and Canadian cities. "There is a lot of difference between USA and Italy," Gastaldello said. "In the USA, people are more interested in music; it is part of their culture. In Italy live music is just entertainment, most of time the venues in which we played are disco, after the concert people dance… in USA after the concert the venue is closed, people go there for the concert. In general there is more attention and respect for music in USA, it is easy and cheap to buy music or instrument… In USA I enjoyed to listen to the radio… in Italy it is impossible to find a good radio station."

Back home, Gastaldello remarked that, outside of a few experimental bands like ZU, there's very little musical scene in Italy: "Most of the Italian bands just copy USA/UK trends…unfortunately for them they discover the trend after five or ten years." At that rate, they'll likely latch onto delicate, dreamy psyche, improvisational noise and joyful garage rock in about 2010 — but by that time Jennifer Gentle will be on to something entirely different. — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, June 13, 2005]

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