[1 December 2003]
Some peoples’ joy spills over into their music. And that’s just grand. And sometimes it serves to piss me right off. Their instruments are conduits for the flood of happiness spewing from their fingertips. Their voices spiral upward with jubilant melodies and delicately intertwined harmonies. Blah, blah, blah. Let’s hold hands and rejoice in the sunlight. Let’s get burned to a crisp.
Some musicians are born to play together. They compose pieces of heartbreaking fragility and pain, their chemistry volatile enough that love/hate sparks fly. They grab our attention and keep it by letting their complex relationships play out through their music and onstage. (Think Fleetwood Mac.) And then those musicians exist who are born to play together because they create songs of unabashed joy. In their voices, instruments, and stage presence, they, simply put, incite happiness. Think the happily married duo, Mates of State. On their third release, Team Boo, Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner produce just about as much exuberance as one moderately happy human being can stand—never mind if you’re feeling a little down in the dumps.
Team Boo, released on Illinois-based Polyvinyl Records, presents the San Francisco duo as exactly who they are: a blissfully happy couple of indie rockers making music devoted to their genre of indie-pop, but more importantly devoted to each other. Hammel and Gardner started playing together in 1997. Having only played guitar in their previous bands, Mates of State spent the majority of their time relearning instruments and becoming confident enough in their own vocal abilities to start singing together. In the late ‘90s, they started touring the West Coast, and by maintaining this philosophy of “play as often as possible”, the duo honed their skills both as musicians and as performers who were the sole focus of a show. With only two of them, their chemistry and stage presence had to make up for the distractions other band members could provide. By the time Mates of State released their full-length debut, 2000’s My Solo Project, they had the act down. On Project and all subsequent albums, Jason Hammel plays drums and Kori Gardner plays the organ. Both sing their little, infatuated hearts out.
“Ha Ha”, Team Boo‘s opening track and the album’s first single, kicks off the 40-minute festivity that is the new album. Gardner’s wildly varied and skillful playing and Hammel’s hyperactive drumming compliment each other as oddly as their energetic harmonies.
On “Gotta Get a Problem”, Gardner pounds out simple melodies while Hammel’s voice interweaves with hers at a lower, more subtle register. Their voices blend, and even if you can’t see them, it’s obvious that they’re singing to each other. And the lyrics aren’t all that important. “And we sat around tonight / Who bumped it up, bumped it up, bumped it, who? / With the rocks and the ghosts in the yard”. Who can say what they mean when they’re belting so loud you can barely keep your eyes on the road?
That is something Mates of State can do despite any lyrical lacking: belt and belt and belt. Gardner’s voice is strong and expressive. Boy does she exploit that. She overpowers Hammel’s singing on most of the album, her alto weaving in and out and around, but always dominating. That damn organ gets super annoying too. Her fingers fly over the keys in truly impressive patterns, but the sound that emerges is a cross between Sunday School keyboards and circus music. On the appropriately titled “Whiner’s Bio”, both Gardners belting and playing grate on the eardrums by minute two of the song. A whole 40 minutes of her gets downright difficult to take. Tracks like “Parachutes (Funeral Song)” and “An Experiment” (eight and nine respectively) provide a welcome breather because she softens both her vocals and her playing. “Parachutes” even features a simple piano.
The album ends on a sweet note with “Separate the People”. Gardner plinks out a delicate and sad melody—one that supplements the quieter version of her charming voice. The song brings Team Boo to a frill-less close, a blessed relief from the manic tendencies of the first half of the album.
Far be it from me to begrudge another’s happiness, but good grief. Mates of State are a talented pair whose purpose it is to bring jubilant and celebratory indie pop to the masses. They’re cuter than the law allows—so cute that I got really annoyed. Hooks so catchy, voices so belty, organ so loud and . . . organy—the whole experience overwhelmed my ears and hurt my brain. Listen at your own risk.