Since organist Kori Gardner and drummer Jason Hammel formed Mates of State in 1997, they have become one of indie-pop’s most reliable pleasures. You knew what you were getting whenever they released a new album: a booming sound that greatly transcended the band’s basic setup, hooks that quickly burrowed themselves into your brain despite the often through-composed nature of the songs, and pensive lyrics often sung in complex, boisterous harmony. After three albums and an EP, though, a bit of change was necessary to keep their music from getting stale. Thus, their most recent release Bring It Back, despite its nostalgic title, finds the Mates significantly tweaking their sound. Though it's far from a bad record, your appreciation of it will depend on which qualities of the their sound you consider to be essential, and which you consider to be negligible.
The first change you’ll notice is an increase in production gloss. Opener “Think Long” starts off in typical fashion: Jason plays a simple tick-tock rhythm, Kori plays a simple arpeggio on her dinky Yamaha, and then they start singing different melodies and lyrics simultaneously. Once the chorus comes in, slight distortion is applied to Kori’s voice, and a piano is overdubbed on top of her organ. It becomes obvious that the Mates aren’t merely replicating their live show anymore. The second change you’ll notice is the comparatively linear progression the music takes. Whereas the average Mates song would run through at least two or three key and tempo changes, “Think Long” adheres to a conventional verse/chorus format before climaxing with a long, repeated coda.
The vocal layering on Bring It Back is often overdone, even by Mates standards. When you’ve already got two people singing different things simultaneously, double-tracking both voices AND adding two or three extra harmonies can lead to clutter. Album closer “Running Out” is the biggest offender. It ends with Kori singing the words “I'm tired of singing” over and over for four minutes, with a 10-piece choir behind her. I implore you, reader: DOES THAT MAKE ANY SENSE AT ALL??!? By the song’s halfway point, I wanted to shake all 11 of them and shout, “Shut up, then!” Even more puzzling are the moments on the album when it sounds like they didn’t spend ENOUGH time on the vocals...particularly Jason’s. He hits some gratingly sharp notes during the chorus of the prom-night waltz “Like U Crazy,” and not even double-tracking can keep his voice from sounding limpid on the minor-key dirge “What It Means.”
The Mates’ decision to streamline their songs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but so many of Bring It Back’s songs follow the verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/coda format that the album begins to lose momentum during the second half. When penultimate track “Punchlines” gives us the kind of abrupt tempo change that the Mates subverted so many of their older songs with, it feels like a breath of fresh air. It dismays me that the Mates may be sacrificing a bit of their quirkiness in a bid for mainstream acceptance. The album’s garishly airbrushed cover, on which Jason looks like he just walked out of a MySpace profile, only increases my suspicion. Dude, I’ve seen you and Kori live six times. You KNOW you don’t wear that much makeup in real life.
Bring It Back still bears enough Mates earmarks to be a recommended purchase for longtime fans. As always, the musicianship is top-notch, and every song boasts at least one monster hook. Kori and Jason still write about interpersonal grievances in a manner that’s candid enough to offset the cheeriness of their music. When they sing about overly critical friends (“Fraud in the ‘80s”), the numbness of routine (“Beautiful Dreamer”) and the wanderlust that results from it (“Running Out”), they do so with the kind of communality that only married couples possess. When they sing the word “I,” they might as well replace it with “we.” If the sound of their newborn child cooing at the end of the gorgeous piano ballad “Nature and the Wreck” doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, you might need to check your pulse. However, newcomers might want to start with their previous album Team Boo before picking this one up.
Artist Website: www.matesofstate.com
Label Website: www.barsuk.com