By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
The name sounds so sweet and innocent: Jennifer Gentle. It's a tag fit for the Teletubbies' babysitter, or some loved-up hippie chick with daisies in her hair. But in truth, what lurks behind this moniker isn't so benign. It's an Italian psych-rock band named after a Pink Floyd lyric from "Lucifer Sam," and its new album is so eerily bewitching that it makes the kooks of the so-called "freak folk" set seem like Peter, Paul and Mary by comparison.
The band's latest record, The Midnight Room, opens with "Twins Ghosts," where wheezing squeezebox and distant, fuzzy vocals are punctuated by dead-simple piano and drum parts. Elsewhere, the bump-and-grind of "It's in Her Eyes" and "Telephone Ringing" suggests a diabolical hybrid of glam and goth, featuring spiky guitars and mastermind Marco Fasolo warbling in a creepy, high-pitched voice reminiscent of some subterranean critter from The Lord of the Rings. Juxtaposing jaunty cadences and martial snare drums, the haunting tones of "The Ferryman" crystallize the vibe of the 10-song disc, where displays of mortal beauty are animated by dark, otherworldly forces.
Fasolo made the disc at his own Ectoplasmic Studio, a cavernous house in northern Italy. "The Midnight Room was conceived and recorded in almost total loneliness out in the countryside," he says. Drummer Alessio Gastaldello went out of the picture following 2005's Valende, the band's U.S. debut on Sub Pop.
Unlike some of the band's earlier efforts, like the experimental A New Astronomy, Fasolo had a clear notion of how he wanted to approach Midnight's material. "It was more like editing a film than recording an actual album," he says.
Cinema comes up often in Fasolo's assessment of his work. He calls The Midnight Room the band's most "quintessentially Italian" effort. Specifically, the oeuvre of director Mario Bava cast a shadow over the album's genesis. Bava was the "sadly underrated genius" who inspired a wave of Italian gothic horror films with underground classics like 1960's Black Sunday, and who garnered praise for his vibrant tableaus of color on-screen.
Jennifer Gentle is working on a soundtrack of its own, to a forthcoming documentary about Joe Meek. An eccentric British record producer, the deceptively named Meek was a DIY innovator who oversaw bizarre hits like the Tornados' 1962 instrumental classic Telstar (the first British rock record to go No. 1), and John Leyton's campy 1961 death disc Johnny Remember Me. Although Meek's influence on the Jennifer Gentle aesthetic is less obvious than that of other outsiders Fasolo is frequently linked to Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson there are distinct similarities, particularly in the pursuit of meticulously manufactured sonic realms.
"Joe Meek was one of the best producers ever," Fasolo insists. "He was able to record big hits in his flat, adding his personal touch and making them sound as his own creations, even if he wasn't a musician."
Fasolo acknowledges that certain film scores by Krisztof Komeda, Ennio Morricone, and Goblin (especially the latter's contributions to Dario Argento's Suspiria) all meet his criteria for disturbing music, yet Meek sits high in that pantheon, too. "I find particularly unsettling even a little song like 'I Lost My Heart at the Fairground,' by Glenda Collins," Fasolo says. "On the outside, it's just a sugarcoated pop number, but Joe Meek's production added a venomous sense of sadness and darkness, still unparalleled." Maybe so, but with The Midnight Room, Jennifer Gentle gives Meek a good run for the money.