Leave it to a band as impish as Jennifer Gentle to explore the sonic possibilities of balloons. Squealing like a miniature sax, the deflation of one such object punctuates “I Do Dream You,” the second track off Valende, the band’s third proper full-length and first on Sub Pop. The album finds the Italian psych-rock upstarts continuing their whimsical antics, although in a less manic and more pensive manner. Rather than the thrilling, grotesque illogic of dreams, the gauzy weightlessness of sleep permeates the ten songs on Valende.
Masterminds Marco Fasolo and Alessio Gastaldello know a thing or two about musical sorcery; after all, they copped their band name from a line in Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam”: “Jennifer Gentle you’re a witch.” Like Syd Barrett, the outfit indulges in a roguish form of psychedelia, alternately unhinged and wistful. Valende features the usual variegated instrumentation — electric guitar, drums, kazoo, flute, harmonium, glockenspiel, organ. But acoustic guitar predominates, making for a markedly subdued sound that lies outside the fuzz-pop of Elephant 6 and the blistering freakouts of Acid Mothers Temple (whose leader, Makoto Kawabata, Jennifer Gentle collaborated with on 2002’s The Wrong Cage).
“Universal Daughter,” a punch-drunk saunter with buzzing kazoos, kicks things off solidly. Fasolo’s quirky and reedy voice melds perfectly with the song’s addled gait. The instantly infectious “I Do Dream You” follows, oozing energy and verve. Organs, handclaps and the aforementioned balloon outburst help create a rollicking garage-pop ditty. Jennifer Gentle concocts a sidereal lullaby with the shimmering “Circle of Sorrows.” The track’s whispery vocals and beautiful, repeating acoustic-guitar figure make it a highlight of the album. Just as drowsy is “Liquid Coffee,” which uses ticking clocks to establish a hazy, somnolent atmosphere.
Valende‘s lone experimental composition is also its most exhilarating. Shades of Sun Ra tinge “Hessesopoa,” a maelstrom of organ, flute, acoustic guitar and drums, all thrashing and colliding mindlessly. This free-jazz-inspired meltdown is an island of menace in an otherwise easygoing album. Not to be outdone, hyperactive closer “Nothing Makes Sense” dispenses candy-coated psych-rock, replete with cartoonish “yeehaws” and samples of laughter. Both tracks demonstrate Jennifer Gentle at its oddball best. They also overshadow the more mundane “Tiny Holes” and “Golden Drawings,” pleasant but plodding numbers that come off as a little too perfunctory. The band’s incursions into pastoral and soporific territory are generally successful, but it is Valende‘s wide-eyed, unrestrained moments that shine brightest.