Although it may fit as an embedded lyric, the title of Mates of State's newest release is a striking misnomer. This album does everything but "Bring it Back." Jason and Kori, the matrimonious keyboard-and-drums duo, have made major changes to their sound this time around. Usually a sign of break-out record, these changes will likely alienate the fan base without impressing new listeners. What went wrong?
Alien Corpse first saw Mates perform as an opening act for fellow-Lawrence-Kansas-based indie rockers Appleseed Cast at Chicago's Fireside Bowl. I chuckled in the back as I watched them set up an ancient keyboard and stripped down drum set which faced each other instead of the crowd. By the end of the first song I had moved up to the front row, mesmerized by their impossible combination of quirkiness and power.
Unfortunately, their studio albums have faltered in capturing the strength of their live sound. Mates of State always sounds small and unimpressive on record. For me, their albums are best used to recollect and anticipate their live shows. Every record, they have had to search for a new producer to take on the daunting task of increasing the space of their studio sound without losing the powerful simplicity of their two-voice, two-instrument live show. Although the previous producers have fallen short in the power department, none of them has succumbed to the temptation of sacrificing the simplicity of Mates' arrangement. Such a caveat cannot be said of the production of "Bring it Back."
"Bring it Back" is boiling over with overdubbed vocals, extra pianos, splashes of guitar, strings, effects, etc. In order enlarge the sound, much of the uniqueness of Mates of State has been lost. Furthermore, the vocals are all set in a lower register, so that Kori never belts out her signature wail. Now I am no purist fan, intolerant of artistic development. But in this case, the changes didn't work. Although the mix is somewhat improved, the sound of the record remains small. The additions did not create space; they created clutter. And the vocals can be heard better than ever, but they are no longer worth hearing because they don't reach their usual harmonic heights. Let's hope that the accompanying tour will release these songs from their over-produced chains.
Although I wholeheartedly recommend Mates of State as one of the most endearing and enduring indie pop bands, I would encourage new listeners to start with a more representative record such as "Our Constant Concern" or "Team Boo."