THE FIRST HALF of Mr. Gnome's Madness in Miniature plays like an extended suite. Songs stop short; new ones jump in to replace them; interludes bloom out of nowhere only to disappear just as quickly. Album opener "Ate the Sun" alternates between delicate verse and full-squall chorus, while "House of Circles" sounds like five entire songs crammed into a tidy but stratospheric epic of roiling moods and electrified hums; "Bit of Tongue" begins with a sweet, folky rattle and ends in a guitar blowout.
Madness in Miniature is the third full-length record from Cleveland's Mr. Gnome, a duo consisting of guitarist/singer Nicole Barille and drummer/keyboardist Sam Meister, and while it's easy to remark on their ability to make huge-sounding music with merely two people, what two-piece doesn't do that nowadays? What makes Mr. Gnome remarkable is how they've sorted through their tangle of sounds and melodies to make a concise record that never sprawls. It feels huge, but once it's over you'll need to start it again—and it's an album that handsomely rewards repeat listens.
"I definitely try to paint pictures with the words," says Barille, "but I don't want them to be literal in any way. The last one we wrote," she adds, referring to Mr. Gnome's previous record, 2009's Heave Yer Skeleton, "they were all kind of based around dreams and being out of body, weird stuff like that. But for this one, we wrote all the songs during the wintertime and spring and summer in Cleveland, which are just such major climate shifts. I think that's why every song has a different vibe to it. Maybe that's just like living in Cleveland, because the weather's always changing and it's going to affect your mood no matter what."
Barille also says the album's cohesiveness was deliberate, the result of a lot of fine-tuning. "We spent a ton of time putting it in all types of orders and figuring out which way it would work best. And then, when we nailed the order down, I started working on the interludes to just really tie it all together. Especially in the MP3 age, I'm a fan of a record that can feel like an adventure or a trip. Those are always my favorite records."
Mr. Gnome started in earnest after Barille and Meister finished college. "We've known each other since high school. We always were playing together but it was never too serious, it was more just like intoxicated jamming," she says. "When we finished school, I think it was the first break that we'd had where we could just mess around. So we just got a handful of songs—I actually forced Sam to play our first show. I didn't really tell him that I had booked it. I had to force him up onstage and I think we played, like, six songs in 10 minutes. We played them super fast!"
There's always been a Portland connection with the Cleveland band, too, beyond the city being one of their preferred tour stops. Mr. Gnome's first full-length, Deliver This Creature, was partly tracked at Jackpot! Studios here in town. Meanwhile, Madness in Miniature was recorded in part with (and mixed entirely by) esteemed Portland engineer Beau Sorenson. "He was the first person who really understood what we were going for," Barille says.
The duo found Sorenson through the folks at Madison's Smart Studios, where Sorenson used to work. "I hit them up and asked for a couple demo discs from all their engineers, and Beau was easily our favorite," Barille continues. "We picked him out of this little smorgasbord of songs off a CD, and we met him and we brought all the tracks to him. He's just an incredibly nice person, and we both really liked delay and reverb and so we just kind of fell in love. He's mixed all of our full-lengths and always does an excellent job. He's really into analog gear and he's just turned us on to so many cool things. He's got a great ear, and I feel like he always ups the production value of what we're already doing."
Three albums in, and Mr. Gnome has mastered the cogent pacing and dynamic control that give their songs drama. Whether it be a creepy dollhouse goth-lullaby or a fiery guitar maelstrom with Barille's voice tipping into banshee territory, the band remains fully in command. Barille chalks it up to confidence earned through experience. "You just have to go on stage and get in front of people because your body does weird things that it doesn't do when you're alone."