Rock-and-roll, goes the story, lives on traditions honored, expectations satisfied: chorus follows verse, bridge follows chorus. Your body feels it coming. It’s coming. It’s here: throw your arms in the air, shake your ass, stomp your feet.
The 2000 Mates of State’s debut, My Solo Project, did an end-run on that familiar formula. Just drums and organ, two singers, each song packed with good ideas, each like a three-minute brainstorm, full of changes in melody, in tempo, in key, in mood. At shows, Jason Hammel hit his drums and Kori Gardner played her organ at punk-rock volume; they shouted over their twitchy carnivelsque racket; there were no guitars dragging anchor, their harmonies hit the rafters. You couldn’t compare them to anyone. This was new. This was great.
They kept trading these looks on stage, these happy looks. Are you kidding me? They’re a couple? They live together? Cute.
The word stuck—because the Mates left you optimistic on the subject of romance. Jason and Kori were quitting their San Francisco day jobs (she: schoolteacher, he: cancer researcher), writing more music, getting married. Moving to Connecticut. Buying a house. Having a baby. A girl. Magnolia. Cute.
Except when you listened to the music. Except when you paid attention to the words. Their follow-up, 2002’s Our Constant Concern, was moodier and slightly more tense than their debut (with curiously homespun cover art). Its best song, “Haves and Have Nots,” begins with Jason and Kori sweetly serenading each other: “I know you’re not playing around / …but I know you will.” Cute, right?
Not really. This was serious stuff, seriously euphoric music that took in romance, but also growing up and the occasionally fraught business of commitment. Their third full-length, Team Boo, was upbeat and amiable, but also, because it’s a Mates of State record—occasionally startling too (see “Ha Ha”). That was 2003. They played their 400th show. They opened for the Strokes. They did a video in their underwear.
Now it’s 2006. The Mates of State have a new full-length on a new label (the storied Barsuk Records), and it’s more assured and more textured than what’s come before. Bring it Back is complicated in places; in others it’s simply satisfying. “Fraud in the ‘80s” chug-chugs along, till it jumpshifts into one of those soaring Mates of State harmonies (though the slightly disconcerting “You could surely try to be more alive” is the line ringing prettily out). “What it Means” is a gentle, Jason-led ballad that swells into something grand. And “Punchlines” gives immediate bliss to veteran Mates of State fans—another one of their wonderfully offbeat brainstorms, full of changes in tempo and melody, a song builds and builds and brings your blood up, lifts you out of your chair.
It’s rock and roll’s trick—expectations satisfied. Except the Mates of State, that perpetually touring “post-cute” couple, once Midwesterners, then San Franciscans, now New Haven locals, do it by ignoring the basic formulas and usual run-arounds. With four full-lengths and a couple of EPs behind them, they set their own expectations. This thing is theirs alone. And it still feels new. And it makes you want to sing along, shake your ass, stomp your feet. –TA