Mates of State: Two of Us [DVD]

[21 December 2004]

By Kenneth Yu

Two Little

Whoever wrote the blurb describing Two of Us as “a documentary made by a fan, for the fan” certainly won’t be accused of false advertising. Featuring two years’ worth of footage of the band touring the Midwest and recording their third album Team Boo, the film displays the production values and expertise of a fan’s bedroom—a fan without significant filmmaking aspirations, at that. Only the most hardcore fan will buy this slipshod piece of work. Remember folks, ‘homemade’ (as the blurb claims) does not mean ‘horrible’.

With that out of the way, I must say that I do like Mates of State. Their self-described ‘neo-prog-pop’ is really something to behold. Throwing conventions like verse-chorus-bridge out of the window, they utilize counterpoint harmonies and employ a sharp pop sensibility, crafting their music into something that is a joy to listen to. The problem isn’t the singers: it’s the medium in which they are recorded. On CD, they become acceptable, sometimes even amazing. Sadly, the transposition to DVD makes for an excruciating two hours.

There are several reasons why this DVD does not work. Firstly, the music does not translate well to live performance. Shoddy quality aside, Mates of State is a pretty minimal band, with Kori Gardner banging on an old-school Yamaha organ and husband Jason Hammel rounding out the sound on drums. Coupled with the fact that they play in mostly intimate pub settings, this is the theatrical version of claustrophobia—and not in a good Richard Linklater kind of way. If the highlight of a gig is seeing a manic Jason pound himself into a sweaty mess, it might not be a good idea to commit it to film. My fellow critics have pointed out that in the middle of their performances, husband and wife infatuatedly glance at each other on stage, falling in love once again for the world to see. This is a novelty at best. Exposure to more than 30 sweet lovey-dovey seconds will inflict diabetes upon the viewer.

Kori and Jason do look like nice people. But the second reason why the DVD format does not do them justice is that they are simply not interesting enough. They come across as your typical perfect suburban Sunday morning neighbours—polite and chirpy, but with nothing interesting to say. The wacky, unhinged brains behind delights like “Ha Ha” and “This Experiment” remain invisible throughout the film’s running time. Instead, the filmmaker is content to focus on the couple’s button-cute facade, perhaps in the hope that their quasi-endearing antics will make the proceedings a tad more bearable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

Having said all that, Two of Us does one thing right—however imperfectly—and that is to chronicle the phenomenon of the musical married duo. Of course, there are husbands and wives in bands like Sonic Youth, Rainer Maria, and recent indie darlings the Arcade Fire (no, the tired ‘are they, aren’t they’ shtick of the White Stripes doesn’t count). Mates of State is the only band to remove all other accompanists, leaving only the core of their marriage. Unfettered by the concept of ‘band morale’, they are collaborators in every sense of the word. Without the distraction of additional influences, we see the synergy and chemistry at the heart of their creative process, from the backstage footage to their songwriting. Unfortunately, there are not enough of these moments to lift the documentary from the lower reaches of mediocrity.

It’s a shame; Two of Us had possessed some potential that would have been salvaged in more competent hands. Oh well: there’s always Quasi to be given the DVD treatment the next time around.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/matesofstate-twoofusdvd/