Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Review: Mates of State, "Bring it Back"

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."


JohnLDrury said...

Alien Corpse,

Too bad this record doesn't sound so great. But I must admit that I have never liked any of their studio albums upon first listen. Actually, it usually takes a few months before I can really groove to their records. Maybe Mates of State is not only an acquired taste as a band but also for each new album.

Tim said...

I haven't heard this or any other Mates album, for that matter. I did, however, read a similar review of the album from a lesser (less CORPSIER) critic (Spin? goes to check...No, Relevant...huh)

I do have one mix CD of Mates that someone gave me, and after one or two listens (ok, everytime a song comes up in the shuffle mode on my iPod) there are often several "nice!" moments.

Something about that high wail female and the harmony with the monotone male (lack of music terminology choking me) just works (A la Rainer Maria, though their recent work is subpar as well).

But I'd rather listen to just the female voice, like Regina Spektor or Rosie Thomas (have you heard her new

Amanda said...

Alien Corpse,

You said, "Let's hope that the accompanying tour will release these songs from their over-produced chains."

We can all hope, but do you really think it's possible? It seems like you think there were more problems with the record than "over-produced chains." Do you really have hope that Kori could cut loose live? Do you think when they play live they might jump into those upper octaves?

I'd like to think their live shows will redeem the record, but I'm not convinced...

Was that TRUE hope in your statement or a mere CURTESY hope?


danszombathy said...

I don't want to work, so I will write to Alien Corpse.

Mates of State is definitley more interesting live than on record.

I always saw them as a novelty act rather than as serious artists. I mean, do they write good songs? I dunno.

Good date band, though.


John - Good point. I will keep my mind open to enjoying the record more over time. However, it does not bode well for a band if such a re-acquisition of taste must occur.

Tim - On their first two records, Mates moves beyond the wail female / monotone male writing into more complex harmonies. But then they started singing dual melodies and it just got more boring.

Amanda - I suspect their was some curteousy in my hope, out of respect for a band I've liked for years. However, the only non-production problem was the lack of "wail" which could possibly be a good development in a live show that strips out the distractions. I won't get my hopes up though.

Dan - "Novelty act" is a fair category. I would note that a novelty can also be a serious POP band at least, in that their novelty puts a twist on fun songs. I am thinking of Violent Femmes, who were a novelty group that still squeezed out a long career of alternative pop music. Whether the same hope can be held out for Mates is yet to be seen. If enough of us can get dates for the shows, then that is a recipe for success ;-)