Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mr. Gnome. The Heart of a Dark Star.

Mr. Gnome. The Heart of a Dark Star.
El Marko Records, 2014. Mr. Gnome:

This album is a year old, and so has already been reviewed in numerous places, including Consequence of Sound, Cleveland Scene, and even NPR. It made the Rolling Stone College Album charts, CMJ charts, and probably several others. They are now officially cool. The duo have a biography in AllMusic (surely a sign of having made the big time), where they’re described as alternative rock, indie rock, art rock, and sadcore. I’m not sure what these categories mean anymore, but I would describe their music as simultaneously hard and delicate, noisy and lovely, ever-shifting and hypnotic. We reviewed the excellent Madness in Miniature back in 2012, and so forgive me as I try to come up with new and clever things to say about this latest offering.

The band is consistent in both sound and presentation. Madness in Miniature was similar in some respects, but it seems that their musicality is a bit more sophisticated, as is their studio work. Layering is an important quality to their work, with multi-tracking of the vocals a major feature of their work. That is not to say that the music is less present, because it’s upfront in many tracks, and often the swell of guitars overwhelms everything else. They seem to like to alternate longer and shorter tracks, with a couple clocking at 4-5 minutes and others a minute or less. Combined with their tendency to shift rhythms and moods within songs, it’s difficult to tell without watching the time (I’m using a laptop) or reading the lyrics where we are. I like this. It makes for a coherent listening experience despite its pastiche approach that often disorients.

I hear a stylistic differences as well, particularly in the way they are now incorporating more  elements of folk and gospel into the psychedelic swirl. The last track, “The Sea,” is reminiscent of gospel music, and “Odyssey” takes a folky start before the electric guitars come in and add considerable fuel, ending up in a strange mix that suggests the Pogues on acid. “Rise & Shine” has a similar feel. “Follow” is one of my favorite tracks, with the layered vocals giving the song a 60s feel, combined with the anthemic qualities of arena rock, without being retro in the slightest. I also enjoy how it blends right into the next track, “No Place like Home,” as if it were a coda to the first song. This happens elsewhere, also to good effect.

But I’m at the end of the album. Let’s go back to the first track, “Melted Rainbow,” as it sets the tone. Echoing the lyrics, I can’t explain why this song reminds me of early Moody Blues, but there it is. Perhaps it’s the combination of spacey atmospherics and gently layered harmonies. Others will hear other things, and I betray my age and musical references. “Mustangs” has more of a dance feel to it, but specifically 80s dance music. “Star Stealers” is harder rocking, with an almost punk/metal quality to it, although the psychedelic elements are never far away and take over in the bridge (if we can identify it as that). Flamenco sounds build into a curious hard rock piece in “Storm,” which then fades to almost white noise. “Light” is the longest track, and one of the slowest tunes, with interweaving vocals and a drifting, hypnotic atmosphere.

I found this a rich and rewarding album, complex and gorgeous, one best listened to in its entirety, which I believe is what Mr. Gnome had in mind. A concept album in the 2010s?  Unbelievable. They are currently touring the Midwest and West, but will be back in town for a concert at the Beachland Ballroom on December 19th. I can’t wait to hear how they do all this live.

Personnel:  Nicole Barille (vocals, guitar, piano), Sam Meister (drums, piano, vocals), Jonah Meister (guitar on “Star Stealers”). Somebody does a lot of handclapping.
Tracks:  Melted Rainbow, Dark Star, Rise & Shine, Mustangs, Folk Lonely, Star Stealers, Storm, Light, Hangunder, Odyssey, Follow, No Place like Home, The Sea.

Jeff Wanser

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