There is something comforting about the production on Jennifer Gentle’s newest release, The Midnight Room. It’s a warm, slightly rough-edged throwback to the ‘60s, sometimes even the ‘50s. There isn’t a trace of modern recording’s sheen to be found on these songs, and it lends to them a welcoming feel. Unfortunately, unlike their last album, Valende, once that welcome wears out these songs don’t really hold up on their own merit.
The Midnight Room is full of good ideas, many coming from psychedelia and the band’s main muse/name provider Syd Barrett. But most of the ideas don’t get fleshed out and, as the songs continue on without much of an arc, the album falls flat. “Telephone Ringing” could be a kooky-pop dream, full of cascading, circus-inspired piano and singer Marco Fasolo’s off-kilter nasal vocals, but it instead stops itself too often, and the song’s herky-jerky nature does not add tension to the song like it should, but instead makes it sound overly repetitive. This is a common problem in The Midnight Room, where other songs like “It’s in Her Eyes” get derailed by Fasolo’s penchant for stop-start drumming and stilted guitar riffs.
“Take My Hand” might be the only song that escapes the album’s quick turns unscathed, probably because it is easily the strongest straight-up pop song, one that manages to sound both familiar and infused with the band’s distinct sound. Early Of Montreal could be a comparison, except that Fasolo—though he and Kevin Barnes share a love of kook-pop—injects the song with more psychedelic atmosphere so that where the song stops the listener is welcomed in instead of stopped short.
The song is one of few total successes on the album—“Electric Princess” being the next closest thing—and one wonders is Fasolo should have gone in and recorded this record alone. Amid reports of personal crises, Fasolo holed himself up and recorded the album in an old house in Northern Italy. The personal need for solitude aside, he probably could have used someone else there to bounce ideas off of. Another ear might have heard how opener “Twin Ghosts”, though it establishes a darkly moody and lilting sound, presses on far too long for its own good and never really settles into a rhythm so that the entire song sounds like it is waiting to begin, until it ends. They also might suggest that not every song needed a run-down-the-scale guitar riff that, after you hear it in the third for fourth song, pushed Jennifer Gentle out of the world of psychedelic homage and into a place far more campy. The same could be said of the mock-ghost noises tacked onto “Quarter to Three” and the kazoo intro to “Mercury Blood”. In the end, The Midnight Room sounds counterintuitive more than anything. Where Valende established its simultaneously retro and distinct sound, but relied on the songs themselves to be good enough to carry the album. Now, The Midnight Room finds Fasolo resting the weight of the entire album on its atmosphere, perhaps hoping that it will make the songs and, as a result, the album, rather than using it to bolster already strong tracks.
“Granny’s House” is a perfect example of this. It is a song full of interesting noises, lead-pipe clanging, far-off choir vocals, pounded pianos, the album’s heaviest drumming. But while the repeated slamming of these sounds sets the song in motion nicely, the song doesn’t go anywhere from there. Instead, it fades into silence half-way through (a silence it holds for far too long) and then comes back in with the exact same pounding. The violence of the track, set in contrast with the seemingly sweet implications of its title, is only initially interesting, and certainly not an idea complex enough to hold such a grating track.
There is no doubt that Marco Fasolo has made the album he wanted to make, and no one can fault him for that. But as the album comes to its deliberately brooding last track, “Come Closer”, Fasolo doesn’t sound emotive and intense, he sounds worn out, and the listener might feel that way by the end, too. Because this is an album full of enough good ideas and interesting sounds that a lot of music fans might want to like it, but unfortunately, that might be too tall a task for many.