Thursday, July 10, 2008

Week 7: "Re-arrange Us" by Mates of the State

Like the band I wrote about last week, I first heard Mates of the State by accident. It was just about exactly two years ago on the hottest day of the entire Kansas summer when I went to spend 9 hours at an outdoors music festival in Lawrence. I went primarily to hear Death Cab for Cutie, but caught the set by Mates earlier in the afternoon.

Mates of the State consists of just two musicians, the husband and wife duo of Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel. The pair met in Lawrence, Kansas and then moved to California. They’ve released five albums in eight years, their latest being the just released Re-arrange Us. Kori plays a variety of key-boards (synth, organ, etc.) while Jason plays the drums. They both sing. While this may sound like a recipe for monotony, it is not. The duo keeps you on your toes with a variety of abrupt tempo changes. Often their songs do not seem like unified wholes, but rather a pastiche of different songs wildly sutured together. On top of this, on many of their songs they sing different lyrics to different melodies at the same time. The results are wonderful pop songs that are intricately complex.

At the festival in Lawrence I happened to bump into Kori as she was hanging out in the crowd after their set. I’ve had the opportunity to converse with many members of nationally touring bands and I’ve never met anyone as gracious as her. My general rule of thumb is to say something kind and then shrink back so as not to monopolize their time or intrude. I was delighted that she engaged me in conversation and answered questions about how the tour was going and what it was like to tour with Death Cab. I don't mean to make too much out of this, but only to say that her desire to connect with her listeners seemed sincere.

I knew when I put together this list that I had to include a song by Mates of the State. The question was which one to include. The song “10 Years Later” off Our Constant Concern was a candidate. So were three tracks (“Ha Ha”; “Whiner’s Bio”; and, “An Experiment”) off their third album, Team Boo. Also, the song “For the Actor” from their album Bring It Back may be their strongest song of all, however it gains several demerits for appearing in an annoying AT&T commercial.

(Let me clarify that comment a little. First, it is always a little jarring to hear one of your favorite songs used to advertise a product or service. I will just have to deal with the fact that the brilliant power chord from my favorite song – “Stars” by Hum – is used in Cadillac commercials. While some might accuse Mates of the State of selling out, I don’t have a problem with this. Bands like Mates of the State and Hum toil in obscurity for years, play to empty houses, and work to cultivate devoted listeners and fans. They deserve to cash in. They’ve earned it. But, the AT&T commercial is horrid. It shows a crowd of fans using their cell phones during the show. That is annoying. Cell phones do have their purposes. If you lose your friend in the crowd, you can text them and tell them where you are. If you find yourself invited backstage, you can send your buddy a text that says, “Backstage w/ band. Goin 2 StL 2nite. Take a taxi home. Sorry.” Not that this has ever happened to me. So, just put the cell phones away, OK?)

However, instead of all of those worthy and excellent songs, I decided to choose the first single, “The Re-arranger” off Mates of the State’s new album as the song of the week. The song is brilliant, catchy and dark. It also marks the band’s intention to add more musicians to their line-up, both on the album and on tour. “The Re-arranger” begins with some lines of poetry: “Red colonial houses lining all the snow-white streets / Working out all our problems there in the back of the house where the ghosts all sleep.” For all the songs energy and pop-catchiness, the song’s lyrics slowly disclose that the song is about the end of a relationship, literally a re-arrangement. You can hear them play "The Re-arranger" live here.

Nick Hornby, to whom I owe the inspiration for this 52 Songs in 52 Weeks enterprise, talks about listening to a song until you “solve it”, that is, until you figure out what makes the song so compelling. I finally solved “The Re-arranger.” The song features each of them singing over the other. During the first verse, while Jason sings his poetic verse, Kori sings over him with gibberish. In the second verse, it gets “worse” as they each sing different words over one another. And yet, at the end of the song, their voices synchronize. What a clever play: to have them come together in their separation. Tension dissipates. The resolution is bittersweet, but it resolves. But it resolves.