Usually when bands say "We don't sound like anyone else" or coyly refuse to name influences, you can categorize them and pick out their influences in a second. When you slip Mr. Gnome's new CD, Heave Yer Skeleton, into iTunes, what comes up in the "genre" column is "unclassifiable." And for once, that's pretty much on the money.
According to the band's bio, it has been compared to "a scattershot of artists ranging from Portishead, Cat Power, Massive Attack and Joanna Newsom, to Death From Above 1979, Blonde Redhead, Sonic Youth and Yeah Yeah Yeahs." It's both a blessing and a curse for the Northeast Ohio duo — singer-guitarist Nicole Barille and drummer Sam Meister.
"Someone said it was like I ate Bjork and Cat Power for dinner or something like that," says Barille. "It's very entertaining the way people try to describe your music. I think it frustrates people that they can't put us in a box."
Unsurprisingly, the dozen tracks on the new CD cover a lot of territory. "Spain" opens the album with a rustling, narcotic dreamscape in which Barille's vocals sound tiny and intimate, before it explodes into fireworks of guitar, drums and wailing, layered vocals. While some tracks — like "Titar," with its twittering background sounds — rely mostly on sparse, ambient sections, others — like the driving "Slow Side," the expansive "Cleveland Polka" (not a polka) and the rough, noisy "Plastic Shadow," with vocals that are alternately biting and sighing — are denser and heavier. With its spritely melody and goofy, funhouse vibe, "Vampires" finds Barille sounding like she has a bandana tied over her mouth. The album ends with a contrast: the big pulsating instrumental "Searider Falcon" gives way to the pensive title track as Barille adopts a small, tight, glittering voice.
Much of the music has a distant, isolated quality, as if things are constantly floating or racing out of reach; the vocals move from front to back of the mix and often sound like they're under layers of gauze. The lyrics also feel detached, like quick glimpses from a car window. Maybe that's because the band has been on the road so much the past few years, building its base the old-fashioned way, city by city, person by person.
"I'm feeling that our work is paying off," says Barille. "We're building a following in a lot of cities. We've gotten written up in a bunch of weeklies around the country. I also think the grassroots from playing is the way you get people interested in what you're doing and keep them there. Coming back to same cities every couple of months, you start seeing a word-of-mouth snowball effect."
For a band that's hard to describe, that may be the only way to acquire a following, something Mr. Gnome has been working on since releasing a pair of EPs in 2005 and 2006, followed by their full-length debut, Deliver This Creature, in May 2008. They've also made a lot of friends on the road who've given them everything from places to stay to contacts who have been useful in moving their career forward. They met Justin Smith, who engineered Heave Yer Skeleton at his Pink Duck Studio in Los Angeles, through a friend there.
Barille says that working with Smith changed the band's recording process from catch-as-catch-can to a slightly more planned one. Barille and Meister wrote the songs last winter and sent tapes to Smith prior to the sessions.
"The last couple of times we recorded, we didn't know the engineers at all," says Barille. "We'd go, track and then it was, see you later. This was more of a team effort; he knew what we were going for because we'd done months of preparation. We would tell him what sounds we were going for, he could pick something out and help us out. He introduced us to some really cool gear that we had never really played with before."
Barille and Meister co-produced the CD, guiding their own destiny, as they do with virtually every other aspect of their career. Although a handful of outside musicians — including Meister's kid brother Jonah — contributed to several tracks, Barille says, "Mostly it's just the two of us."
Ultimately, Barille says fans will hear the same hard-to-peg mixture of sounds they're come to expect from the band, wrapped up in a new package.
"We weren't going for anything particular, just expand on what we did on last album," she says. "We had grown from touring and getting CDs from different bands — you can't help but be inspired. We weren't trying to sound a certain way, just jam on certain sounds and see where they would go. I think we both realize that it's all over the place."
She adds, tongue-in-cheek, "People like to be drugged and come see us. There's a lot of reefer in there. We don't shy away from those effects."