On 2000’s My Solo Project, we were introduced to the boyfriend-girlfriend (later husband-wife) duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel. Their keyboards-and-drums sound was playful, silly, and fun, and they honed that sound on Our Constant Concern. By Team Boo, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if the band was developing its style or merely continuing it. Neither Gardner nor Hammell sung all that well, and they seemed to embrace that fact by shout/singing their lyrics with abandon, but while that was fun early on, it started to get a bit grating. And vintage keyboards/organs and drums only carry you so far. So while I enjoyed Team Boo, I couldn’t help but feel a bit tired. The sheer exuberance with which this duo plays can be a little offputting after a while.
Bring it Back doesn’t bring back that playfulness from 2000, but it might go a long way toward establishing Mates of State with fans who, like me, were getting a bit tired of in-your-face singing and roughshod but playful pop. There’s still quite a bit of those things here, but they’re tempered a bit by more studio sheen, which greatly adds to these 10 songs. Gardner’s voice has never sounded so good, and Hammel trades his vocal parts with a greater sense of harmony. The keyboards and organs are still the most assertive element on the album, but there’s a kind of catchy vibe to these songs that gives them a danceable quality firmly based in pop.
The album opens with “Think Long,” which surprises me almost immediately with a more mid-tempo pace and some glossy production that mixes the vocals perfectly. The drums on this track almost lend the song a dancy feel that reminds me of I Am the World Trade Center. “Fraud in the ’80s” may be the band’s catchiest song yet, and after every listen, I find myself repeating the chorus of “You will surely find this, yes you will surely find this, less pleasing to your ears…pleasing to your ears.” I can’t help but wonder if that line is a response to critics who knock the band’s style, especially when they sing, “You can truly be more like, ah-ah-ah,” drawing that last part out sweetly as if pointing out that they don’t have to sing pretty to have fun. “So Many Ways” feels true to the band’s earlier week, light and chimey and fun.
“Like U Crazy” tones down the keyboards for a nice effect, but the repeated “I-I-I like you crazy” is a little annoying. “What it Means” similarly shows a more tone-downed Mates of State. The light drums and softly sung vocals give the song a more tempered feel, and it’s nice to hear Hammel taking lead vocals. “Nature and the Wreck” is another mellow track, with Gardner singing quite prettily over piano. On “For the Actor,” thickly fuzzed electric guitars make an appearance, giving the band a real rock feel. The closing “Running Out” nicely combines the band’s back-and-forth singing and keyboard-driven pop style with more studio effects and a more lush approach.
I’ll be the first to admit Mates of State’s music is not for everyone. At times, it’s a bit grating. The band has never shied from emphasizing its pop sound with an in-your-face singing style and over-the-top keyboards. While the band is always fun and catchy, it can be a bit much after a while. That’s why I’m happy to see more studio work going into Bring it Back and a bit more restraint without compromising the fun the band clearly feels in making its music.