Mr. Gnome, live at the Silverlake Lounge, Tuesday, November 19
There weren't many folks in the club at first, but the two or three dozen who were scattered nearby gathered quickly and instinctively around the tiny, low stage as the obscure Cleveland duo Mr. Gnome began to conjure a weirdly hypnotizing racket. Singer-guitarist Nicole Barille and drummer Sam Meister stirred up an initially subtle, low-key background noise before finally swelling with full power and volume like a pop-up tornado. Except for a couple of people chatting away obliviously at the bar, everyone appeared to be pretty fascinated by the pair's seesawing changes.
When Meister wasn't bashing out hard, heavy and fast accents on his toms, he was turned around on his drum stool with his back to the audience, hunching over a small keyboard and tapping out ethereal washes for Barille to sing against. Sometimes he'd move from keyboards to drums in the same song, swiveling in his seat to face the new instrument without getting up or missing a beat. His drums were set up stage left, pointing directly at Barille rather than aimed at the crowd.
A friend joked that the strapping Meister seemed like the star of the football team when women surrounded him moments after the set ended. Meister was tall, athletic and strong, clean cut with short hair. I wouldn't want to get in a fight with him. He was muscular on the superfast, intense parts, but he also laid out at the right times and played delicately when needed. Mr. Gnome's songs have extremely intense sonic mood swings and changes in dynamics. It's these juxtapositions -- these collisions -- that make Barille's songs so fascinating.
Her voice was alternately pretty and fearsome. Sometimes she trilled delicate, shimmering melodies that hovered in the spaces above the crashing canyons of her guitar and Meister's drums. Other times, she howled mournful alien cries that barely pierced the foggy shroud of her distorted guitar. Barille was dressed anonymously in blue jeans and a plain brown sleeveless blouse, her curly brown hair loosely piled up on her head. It was hard to believe that such an innocent-looking person could create such terrifying shifts of emotion and musical momentum, that her whispery voice could suddenly upwind into frightful and ghostly wailing. Meanwhile, her guitar unreeled sinister, snaky riffs that were tethered to onrushing slam-downs of impending thunder like kite strings attached to clouds of gasoline.
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When she chatted to the audience between songs, she spoke in such a soft voice, you often couldn't hear her. Part of that was the fault of the Silverlake Lounge's boxy P.A., but much of it was because of her self-effacing persona. Barille's speaking voice was a combination of geeky and gentle. Her singing voice, on the other hand, reminded me of wraiths, fever dreams and unfinished exorcisms.
Barille and Meister have a fascinating duality, much like their songs, which swing from knotty, punk-metal Led Zeppy riff-twisting to light snowfalls of delicately spun sugar. And their yin-yang/soft-&-heavy allure is even reflected by the mike stand Barille uses. The stand splits off at the top in a fork, sprouting two separate microphones. One of the mikes is hooked up with a drier, rustier, cramped-&-creepy filtered effect, while the other microphone is dialed in to a bigger and more watery sound. Depending on the mood she's going for, Barille might switch from one mike to another within the same verse, lending some interesting variety to her already charismatic vocals.
These Gnome-mads from Ohio stormed through several songs from their new album, Heave Yer Skeleton, as well as a couple of older ones. They got a good response from the small crowd but didn't get an encore, with another band, Elle Macho, scheduled to follow them. I was curious to see Elle Macho (a new project with the mainstream pop singer Butterfly Boucher) didn't end up staying. I decided to keep Mr. Gnome's moody chaos rumbling around in my brain and ribcage for as long as possible, without the distraction of another group. I wanted to keep it all fresh.