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Monday, May 19, 2008

Mates of State: "Re-Arrange Us"

It's a strange thing nowadays to see a husband and wife musical duo.  It's even stranger to see one that has consistently avoided the cliches and pitfalls that seem to shadow the small, but never-dying classification.  Mates of State have managed to dodge many of those cliches simply due to the uniqueness of their music.  A guy on drums, a girl on vintage keyboards, each trying to outpace, or out-shout the other definitely makes for an interesting listen.  But after a good decade of making music with a single satisfying formula, the group is finally trying to re-arrange things.  The end result is undoubtedly a solid album, but one that longtime fans may find a bit alienating. 

On their previous album, Bring It Back, Kori Gardner set aside her Casio and her Electone keyboard for a few songs, perhaps most notably on the brooding parenthood ballad, "Nature and the Wreck."  On Re-Arrange us, they rarely make an appearance.  For any other band, featuring a piano as the most prominent instrument is nothing special.  For Mates of State, it's shocking.  The fact that most of the songs on the album are all piano-based has sort of a domino effect on the rest of the instrumentation.  Naturally, a piano is not going to pack as much punch, or bite as a tinny synth would.  This causes Jason Hammel to tone things down on the drums, vocals aren't yelped as often as they normally are, harmonies are lusher, and string instruments are added in to flesh things out.  Again, if this were Coldplay, we'd expect nothing less.  But hearing a Mates of State album that's lacking in the band's trademark energy is nothing short of strange.

There are, of course, moments where the band seems to be at least attempting to recreate their classic sounds.  "Now" features Hammel singing, "Now, now, now, now, now, now, now. Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!" during the chorus, but even such playful lyrics seem restricted.  It's as if the band it trying to burst out of their shell, only to voluntarily pull back.  "The Re-Arranger" could possibly be the band's best song to date, however, with lyrics that beg to be sung along to and harmonies that will melt your heart.  The uptempo song flies through its verses, only to come to a half-time drum beat during the chorus.  It's here where the song truly shines, with the couple singing, "You should try to shake it off/ And if you really want to shake it off/ you gotta re-arrange, re-arrange us!"  The bridge explodes with the band declaring "Re-arrange us!!!" at the top of their lungs, over surprisingly deep instrumentation.  This is the high point of the album, however, and everything else just seems to pale in comparison to it.

Take, for example, the tragically cliche "Jigsaw," a modern-day "I Got You Babe" if there ever was one.  The couple trade lyrics back and forth, about each other of course, resulting in something fairly disappointing.  "Blue and Gold Print" is a solid ballad that features Gardner singing, "And I know when the kids are all grown we will still have this blue and gold print."  This is all a far cry from "Ha Ha" or "Whiner's Bio," unfortunately, though one can't necessarily blame Mates of State for growing up, having kids, and becoming well-rounded adults.  It's just that the music isn't always as interesting as it has been in the past.  "Get Better," for example, is a really beautiful song, and one of the album's best, but its emotion seems a little two-dimensional.  Do we really need to add a string reprise to accentuate the serious nature of the song?  Were the lyrics not enough?  

I suppose it can all be attributed to growing pains.  Mates of State are a talented group, capable of much more than their past successes would leave many to believe.  Unfortunately, Re-Arrange Us seems like an album that is caught in transition; stuck awkwardly between the flamboyant extremes of Team Boo and the subdued beauty of "Nature and the Wreck."  The band seems eager to break free from their childish past, but at the same time reluctant to just leave it behind and move forward.  As such, many of the songs on Re-Arrange Us lack any sort of drive or energy to push them forward, and the album can get pretty sluggish towards the end.  

It's a huge disappointment for me, being a huge fan of Team Boo and the more outlandish moments of Bring It Back ("Punchines," for instance).  But even I can admit that not all of the songs on Re-Arrange Us are bad.  In fact, with only a few exceptions, the album is pretty strong.  It may not be what many were expecting, and some may even throw up their hands in frustration, but that doesn't keep Re-Arrange Us from being somewhat satisfying.  At the very least, even the most hardened Mates of State fans should be able to get a few weeks worth of listens out of it.  Whether or not that's going to be enough, is entirely up to you.

Key Tracks:
1. "Get Better"
2. "Now"
3. "The Re-Arranger"
4. "Blue and Gold Print"
5. "Lullaby Haze"

6 out of 10 Stars


Anonymous said...

Re-arranger is definitely one of the better Mates of State songs I have heard. Although, I am now torn on whether I should get the album.

Anonymous said...

do yourself a favor and get it. it is good.

Matthew said...

I really like it, especially for singing along to while driving. Some of the songs are kind of plodding, but the upbeat ones, especially You Are Free and the first four tracks, are all getting pretty regular plays for me.