[23 February 2005]
I think the worst case scenario for the Italian psych-folk band Jennifer Gentle (two men, in case their Syd Barrett referencing band name mislead you) would be if the best song from their Sub Pop album Valende were to suddenly become big. It’s not that it shouldn’t, the track in question, “I Do Dream You”, packs an entire album’s worth of psychedelic pop-punk into the span of a little less than two-and-a-half minutes. A romping, stop-start concoction of Nuggets garage rock licks, high-speed vocals, and absolute nonsense sung convincingly, “I Do Dream You” manages that perfect blend of strangeness and pop smarts that instantly makes one skip back to listen to it just one more time. My own, flawed, analogy would be if Ween ever made a genre-skewering album that tackled the Elephant 6 collective, turned the amps up to that mythical eleven, and then added a deflating balloon solo. It is a great song, but it is a lousy indicator of what Jennifer Gentle is all about. The rest of the album, for the most part, is a much quieter and perhaps even stranger affair.
While the helium vocals and spastic guitar fills do make appearances in the hypnotic opener “Universal Daughter” and in the accurately-titled, borderline chaotic, closer “Nothing Makes Sense”, Valende is essentially a quieter affair. While the name, taken from the name of a rival cat mentioned in “Lucifer Sam” for no apparent reason, shows the band’s desire to follow Syd Barrett’s loopy tradition, the majority of the album recalls Pink Floyd’s earliest post-Barrett work, where the band was in search of a new identity in the absence of its fallen leader. Jennifer Gentle, likewise, is more interested in exploring a variety of genres rather than settling on an identifiable “sound”. Fans searching Valende for more freakbeat rock and roll anthems will instead find oddly disquieting pseudo-folk songs sung in an uncertain whisper, where snatches of melody form only to be lost like the narrative thread in a dream. It’s easy to see that the rock and roll set would be disappointed at what, in their view, amounts to a bait-and-switch. I can imagine copies upon copies of Valende finding their way to the used CD bin, tossed aside by the disappointed.
It would be a shame if listeners did not give the rest of the album a few spins before reaching a final opinion. It’s true that the mostly acoustic material that makes up the bulk of Valende is not as immediate as the three, more traditionally “rock and roll” tracks, repeated listenings reveal the album’s bewitching pleasures. A trio of folk songs, I guess kids these days would call them “freakfolk” songs, provide the heart of the album. “Tiny Holes”, “Circles of Sorrow”, and “Golden Drawings” are meandering acoustic jams with unintelligible lyrics that none-the-less beautifully pander to the subconscious, where the random organ riffs and humming backing vocals somehow make perfect sense. Again, the Pink Floyd references are unavoidable, as they follow the same breezy and seemingly formless paths as the quiet acoustic songs on Meddle.
The middle section is also heavily reminiscent of mid-period Pink Floyd, which leads me to believe that the Syd Barrett references are designed mainly to distract listeners from a hidden love of the desperately “uncool” ‘70s era Floyd. In a move straight from the unloved second disc of Ummagumma, Jennifer Gentle takes a relatively simple acoustic ballad called “The Garden”, and splits it in two. In the middle they insert a seven minute collage of drums, acoustic guitars, and an assortment of untraceable buzzing sounds. It is not entirely successful, but it stands better to repeat listens than it really should. It should also be noted that the band does not lose its sense of humor even on the slower tracks, as the chorus (?) of “Liquid Coffee” seems to be “I spilled some coffee on my trousers”. (Not to mention the fact that clocks provide that song’s rhythm section.)
It’s hard to hear some of these songs coming from the same country, let alone the same band, as some of the others, and this lack of stylistic (or any sort of) cohesion may prove Jennifer Gentle’s undoing. I think the band should be commended, as most bands with the same amount of talent would decide their niche sound before releasing their first, let alone third, album, whether it be outsider folk, psych-rock band, experimental noise rock, or novelty act. Jennifer Gentle has the courage to be all of these things at different times (or at the same time). This doesn’t exactly make Valende a great album, but it does make it a refreshing one.