11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
The subdued sounds on Mates of State's latest album Re-Arrange Us fall somewhere between the out-of-character melancholy of their sophomore effort Our Constant Concern and the refined songwriting and lush arrangements of 2006's Bring It Back. Kori Gardner (keys, vocals) and husband Jason Hammel (drums, vocals) have been kicking out the catchy hooks in short, sweet, carnival-ride bursts for ten years now, and even at their most serious, they've never sounded quite as restrained as they do on their latest full-length.
While Re-Arrange Us may lack some of the energy and wide-eyed excitement of the group's prior works, it retains at least some of the elements that earned this group the loyal fan base it has gained. First, no song is without a hook; opening track "Get Better" strings 'em together in classic Mates fashion, albeit in a more subdued context. "Now," which has been generating a buzz amongst fans since the group started playing it live in 2006, is another highlight. Despite its uncharacteristically simple lyrics ("I've been waiting for a sign / to tell me where I belong"--is that leftovers from a Madonna outtake?), it kicks off with a neat little synth riff and eventually erupts into a hypnotic--and addictive--chorus of the song's title repeated for several bars, punctuated with some signature "ooh, ooh!"'s. Elsewhere, upbeat numbers like "Help, Help" and the infectious "The Re-Arranger" lay on the hooks liberally and recall the back-and-forth wordplay and soaring harmonies of Bring It Back's best moments.
The songwriting is more conventional than ever on Re-Arrange Us, which in some ways helps the record, and in other ways may hinder it somewhat. While the Mates' earliest work (their debut LP My Solo Project and the EPs that preceded it) was a total blast to listen to thanks to its wild unpredictability, repeat listens exposed a limitation; there wasn't much to latch onto and savor over time. The lyrics were obscure and the mood rarely fluctuated from unbridled glee, so the material lacked the kind of emotional depth that brings fans closer to the artists as people. On this record, Kori and Jason let listeners further inside their psyches than ever. The safety blanket of obscurity is lifted here, revealing surprisingly up-front sentiments about their relationship, friendships, and their experiences as parents.
At the same time, a longtime fan can't help but miss the over-the-top antics of albums like Team Boo or My Solo Project, where the organ whistled loud-and-proud, the drums pounded out syncopated, jazzy rhythms, and the young couple poured their youthful hearts into every joyous note they belted out. Moments like these are rare here, where a piano fleshes out many of the arrangements, and the organ has been relegated to bit parts and supporting roles, its shrill tones blended away into a pillow of backing textures. Hammel's drumming is actually just as robust and interesting as ever - its just hard to tell since it too has been given a similarly de-emphasized studio treatment. The songs themselves feel more like full compositions and less like scattered, disjointed ideas that are later connected into complete works. Once again, this is a double-edged sword; its great to hear the two refining their craft, learning to write songs that have continuity and a strong sense of purpose. Yet, the fragmented, spontaneous writing approach of their earlier music is really fun to listen to and was part of their initial charm.
Let's put it this way: the previous album Bring It Back has been hailed by many fans and critics as the band's best album, a nearly-perfect balance of youthful energy, exhilarating hooks, sophisticated songwriting and emotional depth. There's no improving upon perfection, and that doesn't seem like their aim on Re-Arrange Us. While it's a detour from their past in many ways, echoes of their best qualities still ring through the haze frequently enough to make it a satisfying and admirable record, even if it's not their strongest.
14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Cale E. Reneau
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
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.
1. "Get Better"
3. "The Re-Arranger"
4. "Blue and Gold Print"
5. "Lullaby Haze"
6 out of 10 Stars