Indie rock's favourite husband and wife act tinker with expanding their sound on their sixth album of original material, with uneven results.
Among the most dependable indie rock institutions of the previous decade, Mates of State have endured precisely because they have always managed to transcend the novelty inherent in their makeup. A duo initially consisting of husband Jason Hammel on drums and wife Kori Gardner on organ -- sharing vocals with their unique brand of shouty, excited back-and-forths -- Mates of State always had both their sonic limitations and decidedly un-rock 'n' roll cuddliness working against them. The latter they combated by simply embracing it outright, coming off like an internet-era John and Yoko circa Double Fantasy, penning sweet odes to domesticity on their albums and a presenting a warm vision of marital bliss on-stage (The band now even tours with their two young children and a nanny in tow).
However, what made their music and, by extension, their whole act, really work was the sheer inventiveness of their music. Sparse early releases like Our Constant Concern (2002) and Team Boo (2003) displayed a remarkable resourcefulness for a band with such modest equipment, spinning sharp melodic hooks out of their low-rent organ-and-drums lineup, crafting a kind of garage-y brand of bubblegum pop that could turn abruptly and unpredictably abrasive on a moment’s notice. It was the perfect setting for the duo’s truly idiosyncratic approach to vocal harmonies, which often came layered atop each other in a conversational dynamic that might have easily sounded angry or confrontational were it not for the pure, earnest enthusiasm radiated by the couple.
By the time the duo reached their fourth album, Bring It Back (2006), however, they had begun tinkering with their core sound, mostly freeing up Gardner to take a break from the organ and play around with guitars and a wider array of keyboard sounds. It was an ambitious and mostly successful release, as was follow up Rearrange Us, which found them having grown comfortable enough with their wider sonic palette to abandon the organ outright. If these records found Mates of States’ sound growing, the band’s singular approaches to songwriting and performing remained, keeping this truly dynamic duo front and center of their music, no matter what new flourishes surrounded them.
Mountaintops, their first record of original material since 2008 (Last year’s Crushes: The Covers Mixtape was an ill-advised detour), finds Mates of State expanding its sound even further. Horns and even a brief hint of electronics make their presences known, but for the most part, Mountaintops simply finds the band sounding simply bigger. Opener “Palomino” is made out of basically the same materials they have always worked with — a propulsive keyboard line in the form of a synth patter along with Hammel's joyful drum kit clatter — but everything is pushed towards an epic scale; by the time the song reaches its sputtering conclusion, you may feel as if you’ve been hit with something large and blunt. It essentially sets the tone for most of Mountaintops, an album where sonic impact has been granted the utmost importance.
This increased reliance on experimentation has never hurt the band in the past, but never before has the duo allowed their sound to dwarf their own presence on record. Much of Mountaintops, then, ends up being defined by things other than Hammel's and Gardner’s fierce individuality, whether it is the bargain basement dance beats and synth squelches that threaten to turn “Maracas” into something resembling discount dubstep or the rinky-dink keyboards that chirp through “Basement Money”, evoking a not necessarily pleasant sense-memory of Paul McCartney’s annual nuisance, “Wonderful Christmastime”. These are mere dabblings, though, while typically on Mountaintops, the bolder the experiment, the less Mates of State can be heard among the clamor. The dry, clicking “Desire” bumps with folktronic glitches and sways with cinematic strings like something off of a Notwist record, at least before a mournful horn section draws it to a premature close. Most dramatically of all, “Total Serendipity” shoots for Motown homage with spiky horns and a swinging keyboard line but lands closer to an approximation of the current wave of UK retro soul pop.
As jarringly uncharacteristic as all of these sounds are, though, Mountaintops might have managed to tie them all together if only Hammel and Gardner didn’t sound so strangely muted throughout most of the record. The duo never feels as much in charge of their experiments as they do overwhelmed by them, and as a result, the only moments on this record that feel particularly natural are the ones where all of the genre affectations are pushed aside. Fortunately, this leads to two utterly magical, classic Mates of State moments. The first, “Unless I’m Led”, is ushered in by a martial drum patter and mixture of gentle string plucks and a warm keyboard hum, letting Garner’s wistful vocals guide the song along until Hammel joins in with the chorus’ encouraging hook (“Oh little girl, pick up the pieces”). By the time the two voices are swaying together in their old vocal zig-zag (as Gardner responds, heartrendingly, with “You’ll learn to live without me”), it serves as a bold reminder of what these two can accomplish with far fewer resources than they have burdened themselves with here.
The other shining, redemptive moment on Mountaintops is the album’s finale, “Mistakes”. As with “Unless I’m Led”, it succeeds by refusing to cede focus from the duo. A trumpet scorches through much of the song, but here it functions as seasoning rather than a centerpiece, leaving the rest the to one of the band’s once-signature simple piano melodies and a narrative that builds through an intermingling of their vocals. The story they tell is one of vague, and hopefully non-autobiographical, relationship discord, but the central emotions are compassion and forgiveness personified: “Just remember that we all make mistakes / And no one big slip-up makes it all go away”, Hammel sings in a meter-bending defiance, while Gardner wonders, poignantly, “I need you / And it’s not normal if I refuse to be by myself”. Such far-too-fleeting reminders of the greatness that a band usually delivers in abundance can actually make for a far more frustrating album than an all-out failure, and in the end, that's all Mountaintops ends up accomplishing. It only leaves one hungry for a real Mates of State record.