The new album by Cleveland duo mr. Gnome, Heave Yer Skeleton, is a surreal rock listen. Largely recorded at the Los Angeles studio of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, the band's sophomore full-length contains layers of echoey, keening vocals and effects-slathered guitar courtesy of Nicole Barille. She's anchored by the propulsive drum work and instrumental fills of Sam Meister. Together, they've created a surprisingly big, lush record.
Skeleton sprawls stylistically, mixing atmospheric numbers with screwy pop and roaring prog-rock. Barille says this sonic density and variety came about in part because there were so many cool tools available at Homme's Pink Duck Studios. The musicians had at their disposal vintage amps, crazy effects pedals, and all manner of guitars — basically every noisemaking toy Homme and his compatriots have accumulated over the last decade. "I think we tracked way too many things," she says with a laugh. "We kinda went crazy. Full bands don't have that many tracks, much less a two-piece."
Barille and Meister formed mr. Gnome in 2005. Since then, the couple has been a two-person cottage industry, consistently building and promoting the band. When they released their first album, Deliver This Creature, in 2007 on their own El Marko label, they threw all their possessions in storage and hit the road. They've since released two EPs and two full-lengths and toured relentlessly, slowly building their fan base with each successive circuit.
The mr. Gnome sound invites all manner of comparisons. It contains elements of PJ Harvey, Cocteau Twins, and Sonic Youth, as well as warbly songstresses Joanna Newsom and Cat Power's Chan Marshall. One of the more bizarre critical descriptors to make it to print said the group sounded like Fiona Apple fronting Black Sabbath. Barille seems to take all of this in good humor, although there is one comparison that gets under her skin. "Probably my most hated one is Evanescence," she says, adding that she's heard a number of strange reviews of her band: "It's like, are you even listening to the same record?"
The songs and lyrics on Skeleton have a woozy, altered-states quality, and that's no accident. Barille says that while writing the album, she was reading a lot about Edgar Cayce, the "Sleeping Prophet" of the 1920s who would predict the future while in a trance. "He stated that dreams are incredibly important to your waking life, and how necessary it is to dissect and analyze your sleeping self," Barille explains. "The term 'Heave Your Skeleton' was coined by author Sally Foster Wallace to describe the act of going to sleep. It all seemed to tie together."
In the middle of Heave Yer Skeleton is a track titled "Cleveland Polka." It's a howling, punked-up framing of the polka beat: Think Yeah Yeah Yeahs rolling out the barrel. Barille says naming the song after mr. Gnome's hometown was a no-brainer. "The Polka Hall of Fame is actually in the city that we used to live in, Euclid, which is by Cleveland," she says. "Cleveland needs props; we have [Cavalier basketball star] LeBron James, and that's about it!"
Perhaps with mr. Gnome's help, the struggling post-industrial metropolis can build a reputation as a leading exporter of superior-quality, trance-inducing rock.