Album by Mates of State
The last time Mates of State blew my mind was in 2003. This makes me feel old, and at first it makes me kind of disappointed that they haven’t done much blowing, mind-wise, since then. The brilliance of their first trio of records – My SoloProject,Our Constant Concern,and Team Boo – was in the band’s ability to create joyous anarchy within almost Spartan limitations: two members, two instruments. Jason Hammel played a modest, vintage drum kit, and Kori Gardner played keyboards, or, rather, one particular keyboard, a 1970s-era Yamaha Electone organ. This democratic partnership sang, shouted and battled through songs that twisted and tripped all over the place. Incredibly, their sudden, awkward tempo shifts and key changes only made Mates’ songs catchier and more danceable, like on Boo’s “Ha Ha,” probably the best song of their career.
Somehow, their debut for Barsuk records, Bring it Back, wasn’t as compelling – their songwriting and craft were solid, maybe more so than before, but even the energetic single “Fraud in the ’80s” lacked the hurried urgency of their earlier material. Longer songs, quiet piano ballads and slower tempos had begun to creep in. Was the “maturity” albatross going to sabotage Gardner and Hammel, now married and starting a family?
The first single from Re-Arrange Us, “Get Better,” is representative of the record’s tone and texture. The Electone is wholly absent, the drums aren’t all up in your face, and the belting has become actual nuanced singing. Gardner starts off with an insistent piano lick and the song builds slowly, never to a climax, adding glockenspiel, trumpet and Hammel’s cautious, tasteful stickwork. There are some outbursts – the energetic mantra of “Now” (“now now now now now now now”), for example – but this is a record of songs, not shoutalongs.
Re-Arrange Us is a slide into the comfortable rather than the unpredictable – many are calling this the Mates’ first truly “domestic” album, now that the band has two kids in tow when they tour – but remarkably, the lack of mind-blowing actually feels like a step in the right direction. What the band has really done, from the opening strings section on “Get Better” to the fuzzy electric guitars of “Jigsaw” to the perfect plunky bass on “The Re-Arranger” is expand their palate while toning down their pomp and circumstance. They’ve gotten bigger and smaller at the same time, and the result is by far the most subtle, pleasant and elegant record the band has made.