As much as I hate employing overused angles to in my reviews, it’s tough to discuss the music of Mates of State without discussing the personal lives of its members. Organist Kori Gardner and drummer Jason Hammel are spouses who make beautiful music together in all senses of the word. There are many other married couples in independent rock, from Deerhoof’s Greg and Satomi to Yo La Tengo’s Ira and Georgia. However, it’s easier to make critical analyses of those bands’ music without mentioning their interpersonal dynamics because they aren’t a dominant part of the musical package. For example, there isn’t a single Sonic Youth album in which Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon hold hands in every picture in the liner notes. Alan and Mimi of Low don’t miss cues in their live shows because they’re too busy staring at each other in complete adoration to concentrate on the music. Deerhoof haven’t made a concept album about how simultaneously excited and scared they were to quit their jobs and get married. Mates of State happen to be guilty of all three actions. Yes, it’s an overused angle, but every cliché is based partially in truth. You can enjoy the Mates’ music in complete ignorance of the love that fuels it, but you won’t fully understand it.
In my opinion, many critics were unfair to the Mates’ sophomore album Our Constant Concern. They dismissed it as a drag simply because it wasn’t as hooky or bouncy as their ironically titled debut My Solo Project. In retrospect, though, the album wasn’t supposed to be a ray of sunshine. Look at the title again: Our Constant Concern. Its lyrics were the direct byproduct of Kori’s and Jason’s conflicting feelings about the big and risky decisions they were about to make with their lives. The album was only a drag compared the music they made before it; compared to almost everything else released that year, Concern was still guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Even at their saddest, the Mates can’t help but lunge at their instruments and microphones with all of the passion inside of them. You knew that they were scared of what they were about to do, but you also knew that they weren’t going to turn back.
The end result of their courage is Team Boo, their best and most fully realized album yet. Kori and Jason made the right decision for themselves, and they are once again comfortable in their own skin. This contentment bleeds through every facet of the album, from the title to the artwork to the actual music. Once again, look at the album’s title: Team Boo. Remember that in hip-hop songs, lovers often refer to each other as “boo.” (This passing acknowledgment to hip-hop could also explain why the Mates sing “This couldn’t be more ghetto,” which would otherwise be the album’s strangest lyric, on the climax of “I Got This Feelin’.”) Kori and Jason seem to be reasserting their status as both lovers and partners, with equal say in both their marriage and their music. Both of them sing, neither of them plays solos, and writing credits on every song are shared. If the Mates actually changed their band name to “Team Boo,” not one iota of meaning would be lost in the transition.
The actual SONGS on the album (yeah, I was going to discuss it eventually) sound like a fusion of the happy-go-lucky circus-pop of My Solo Project and the weightier lyrics of Our Constant Concern. They still alternate between harmonizing with each other VERY loudly and singing different words simultaneously. Many of their songs still sound like the best parts of two or three different songs stitched together, but the transitions aren’t as awkward as they were on previous albums. Their musicianship is getting nimbler with each album: Kori sounds as if she has twelve fingers on certain songs, and Jason keeps finding new ways to play the same three or four rhythms. The Mates break up the pace every other song with additional instruments (xylophones, horn sections) or guest background vocals in order to keep things from getting monotonous. They also make a brief acknowledgment to dub on “An Experiment.” Otherwise, though, their sound has changed little. If you liked the Mates before, this album will only cement your opinion of them. If you didn’t like the Mates before, this album is just different enough to potentially change your mind.
The lyrics on Team Boo tackle standard subject matter in a slightly less cryptic manner than we’re used to from the Mates. “Middle is Gold” chronicles a middle-aged couple arguing with each other after one of them has cheated on the other. “We have enough to make us stay,” Kori whispers; “This ain’t enough to make us stay,” Jason yells. ”Parachutes” examines the last moments of a woman about to die in a plane crash. She takes stock of her life and is ultimately content because not only did she live a full life, but she also had someone to support her along the way. “I’d say I’m better ‘cause I lived before I died,” the Mates sing, “and at least I know you tried.” Album closer “Separate the People” find Kori and Jason plotting to help out a man who’s down on his luck. “You are the bigger man,” they sing, “and it’s time to separate the people from the men who disregard them.” These songs cross the line dividing the merely cute from the truly touching, and show that the Mates are gaining emotional depth as writers. Musically, they’ve far from exhausted their admittedly limited palette, and lyrically they’re getting better. Now that even Quasi, the band that the Mates are most frequently compared to, don’t even sound like themselves anymore (Hot S**t? More like a Hot Mess; Sam, save the guitar wank for Blues Goblins), it’s nice to see a band sticking to their strengths without getting samey. The time for us to fall in love with the Mates again is now, and Team Boo is like Spanish fly to my ears.