There really is no one else who sounds like Mates of State. Of course, every band has some quality that makes them unique, but Mates of State just sounds, well, different. The band consists of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, who play keyboards and drums, respectively, and that’s it. That’s right: no guitars. Granted, a whole lot of music around the world gets played without guitars, but in the American pop music scene, that really does stand out, and it helps serve as an introduction to Mates of State’s sound.
To me, it makes sense to talk about the way the band sounds without drawing a sharp line of distinction between their two albums, 2000’s My Solo Project and this year’s Our Constant Concern. Of course, there are differences between them (the debut is slightly more poppy and catchy, while the new album sounds more melodic), but unlike their one-time tourmates The Anniversary, who for their second album traded in their debut’s claims to distinction, Mates of State seem content to continue to play to their strengths, and keep making the music they apparently like making. And, like I said, their sound is unique.
With the drums there mostly to keep time and pace the music, most of the expression is done with Gardner’s keyboards. (And, of course, their singing, but more on that later.) One of the remarkable things about the band’s production is that they sound like there are a lot more than two people playing. (Granted, you can do that kind of thing in the studio, but I’m told that they retain this quality in the live show as well.) On Our Constant Concern, more so than on the debut, they really get a lot of mileage out of their playing, especially as Gardner goes from playing a standard keyboard to an organ (think the PA at a baseball game) to something that sounds like a xylophone.
Another thing to notice is the variations in tempo and song structure. While most groups are content with minor variations on the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus format, MOS pretty much junks it entirely. The result is a much freer arrangement, with stops and starts, and shifts from soft to loud and back to soft. While this flexibility of structuring (for lack of a better term) can be freeing, it also makes the songs a little harder to listen to, as you really don’t know when to relax, and when to get charged up and sing along (as in the chorus of most songs). Of course, asking more from the listener (“you mean you have to listen to the songs to understand them?”) is probably a good thing, but it also demands more attention. But this also means that there can be many different tempos within a given song — I count at least five distinct ones on the new album’s “Quit Doin’ it” — and really gives the listener much more variety than most bands do.
Then, of course, there’s the singing. While there are a few groups out there (but still distressingly few, in my opinion) who trade on boy-girl harmonies, Mates of State really pushes things even further. Gardner and Hammel sing together, and apart, often layering different lines at the same time, and darting, climbing and dipping, over and around each other. It really is something to behold. If anything, the interplay is stronger on Our Constant Concern, and they seem more comfortable working together. (A little lesson in gender politics: most bands with both male and female singers tend to use one as the primary singer, and the other for garnish, as a kind of novelty. The dominant singer can be the male, like in The Anniversary, or female, like K’s Choice or Rainer Maria. In Mates of State, Gardner and Hammel trade off so much that neither of them overshadows the other.)
Gardner and Hammel also got married (to each other) in the period between My Solo Project and Our Constant Concern, and the press kit seems to indicate that when they play live, they can’t keep their eyes off each other. Maybe I’m just hearing what I expect to hear, but I feel like I can hear this on the album, since they work so well together; on the new album their instruments mesh with each other much better, and the arrangements feel much tighter. And somehow, the idea that they’re crazy in love just makes you feel like all is right with the world.
Of course, I’ve been talking about Mates of State in broad, general terms, without mentioning specific songs. While the band does have a very distinctive sound, each song has its own feel. Listening to them reminds you that pop songs are, after all, by definition compositions. But MOS tends to compose more than a lot of bands. The result of this is that song preferences tend to be much more subjective than in talking about most pop songs. While most people would agree that Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” is a better song than, say, Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me,” it’s much harder to say that some songs by MOS are better than others. While I tend to prefer “Hoarding it for Home”, “Uber Legitimate”, and “Quit Doin’ It” (how could you not love the vocal intro to “Quit Doin’ It”?), others may prefer “Girls Singing” or “10 Years Later”.
In the end, the only real complaint I have about Mates of State is that the truly great parts are somewhat few and far between. While the overall arrangements are great, there are nuggets of pure pop perfection hidden in the songs, but they might take up only ten seconds or so in the song. On the other hand, I tend to go for sugary choruses that could make some other listeners sick. Again, it all goes to individual preferences. But Mates of State is a great band, and more so, an interesting band. Even if you don’t normally go for their kind of stuff, you should give Our Constant Concern a listen, if for no other reason than to better understand how pop songs are put together.