The modern world holds few terrestrial boundaries for Jennifer Gentle's psychedelic spectrum. Sure, the band members' passports are Italian and 21st-century dates grace their CDs, but their music easily traverses time and continents. It floats like dandelion seeds between momentary placeholders, creating a delicate patchwork of songs--dusty edges of Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (they're named after a line in Piper's "Lucifer Sam") mingle with innocent adventures through Syd Barrett's shattered audio fractals and Nick Drake lullabies dispensed on a Roky Erickson acid trip. Spastic garage tracks will pop up with accents from chirping birds in an animated morning roll call or get pared down to the bonfire melodies of an acoustic guitar solo, none of which feels out of place in Gentle's kaleidoscopic spectrum, and all of which are accessible to the adventurous, pop-friendly ear.
Gentle's basement recordings have found a small but steadfast American audience--a fondness shared by Sub Pop Records, who issued the Italians fifth record Valende, in January. Valende is a lysergic-rock carnival that's equal parts modern renaissance fair and antique freak show. It features kiddie kazoo parties, deflating balloon squeals, and manic chipmunk chirps roller-coastering through an acoustic fairyland of glockenspiel chimes and angelic whispers that could win over new-folk followers of bands like Six Organs of Admittance.
One of two co-founders of the Gentle ensemble, frontman Marco Fasolo looked equal parts Brian Jones and corduroy college kid at Austin's recent SXSW music festival. But just as easily as he modifies his exterior, his band--which has grown from Fasolo and drummer Alessio Gastaldello to a five-person group--rode the waves of their various showcases with panache. An early opening slot for Sleater-Kinney was performed with as much eclectic experimentation as a more fitting hippie-come-lately party for Arthur magazine at an old church-turned-music-collective. For both shows, the Padova-based band carefully landscaped their musical playground, which ranges from deranged pop ditties to rollicking interstellar space jams--the latter of which become the intense climaxes for both sets.
"I think that's our peculiar thing, that we play so many different kinds of songs," says Fasolo in heavily Italian-accented English. "I like going through many different options when I play. I like the pop-oriented songs and experimenting during jams or darker songs. It's very funny for me just to play a joke--making jokes in making different songs." (This from a singer who, on Valende's "Nothing Makes Sense," uncoils shouts of "yee hee" and "ohh-hoo" like a wooden bird springing loose from the cuckoo clock.)
"I think it's very interesting when a song is a [collection] of songs," he adds, "when it's somewhere between a kind of noise or jam or pop song. The perfect song has to have all of these elements. Pink Floyd had this kind of approach, but they're not the only ones. A lot of '50s bands had the same ideas--or like Joe Meek's productions."
Although it would be wrong to call Jennifer Gentle's music a joke, there is a sprawling prankster vibe throughout their songs. Falsolo giggles until he's out of breath on Valende's closing track, and the band speeds the vocals up to an outlandish helium tone as nonchalantly as they string together nonsensical phrases like "set your eyes to the sun." "I like doing difficult stuff," says Falsolo with a laugh over his goofy musical exploits. "I don't [always] like to understand what I'm saying, either. Over the years I started appreciating English lyrics and I started writing in English more often… but really, I just like using the musicality of the English language."
"I like the way psychedelic bands from the '60s think about music," says Falsolo. "I think that the MTV generation bands are like fast food compared to '60s bands. Bands in the '50s and '60s played because they needed to play, they needed to express themselves, they needed to let themselves into music. This is the difference… needing to play and having something to say."