By Shain Shapiro
Obviously not listening to their wallets or the needs of their RRSP's, husband and wife duo Kori Gardner and Jason Hammell quit their real-life jobs in 2001 to become Mates of State, regardless of its financial feasibility in securing a comfortable future for them both. In addition, they did it all without a guitarist, deciding to remain inclusive and to focus on establishing themselves via a keyboard (and all the gadgets it contains) and drums. Yet without the single most prominent instrument guiding pop music nowadays, the chromatic couple has created some impressively endearing pop music. For the most part, Mates of State has resided more on the whimsical than the thought-provoking side of the pop music realm, curiously entrenched in the mysteries of the sandbox as opposed to standing up and looking at what may lie beyond its walls. This is not meant as a knock to them at all, as their blend of jittery and playful pop is as infectious as its classification ought to delineate. After three full-lengths and a slew of EPs, it seemed time to expand and evolve, and with the help of overdubbing and the incorporating of more instruments – including, dare I say it, a guitar – they have moved forward. Bring it Back, the fourth installment of the Mates of State's musical merry-go-round, accomplishes this.
To begin, "Think Long," the opening ditty laced with Ritalin-infused synth jolts and vocal snorts that hit as hard as autumn hail, is brilliant. From the onset, Gardner and Hammell present each other with an ultimatum, stating to either "get off or get out." While the theme of the song is significantly less malicious than the choral vocals entail, the power of the words and the song's entangled melodies is established outright. Instead of being just a pop song, "Think Long" is much, much more; it's an ode to the '80s or a think-piece of sorts, filled with introspective lyricism and something absent in most pop nowadays, patience. The song evolves slowly, fuelled on Gardner's single-note processions, and reaches its acme only near the end, when the synth part is transformed into a bass-heavy piano line.
Continuing on, both "Fraud in the '80s" and "For the Actor" follow suit, containing lyrics like, "Don't put your hands in the pockets that feed you" and "You could surely try to be more alive," which further a theme of wry, odd sarcasm that permeates much of the listen. In addition, both tunes are built on powerful yet simple melodies akin to the older days, just with more instrument overlays, like strings and horns that enhance, rather than detract from, the original melody. Furthermore, "Nature and the Wreck" is one of the most beautiful – and I use that word verbatim – love songs I have encountered in years, while "Beautiful Dreamer" intonates its title liberally with lovingly discordant vocal harmonies laid over a melody that resembles a child learning to play the organ more than anything else. Yet this is not a shot at Gardner, as with the Mates of State and their oddball melodic prowess, it works. Come to think of it, I could not think of a better melody line that would accomplish as much as Gardner's does in the tune.
While the same playful lyricism and pop jubilance lead the way prominently, Gardner and Hammell seem to be reaching further into their own songwriting abilities with Bring it Back. Yet this noticeable growth hampers the LP's overall pop sensibilities, something Mates of State have grown to excel at since 2002's My Solo Project. Regardless, expansion is always subject to imperfections. For example, the magnum-opus and grand finale of the record, the six-minute-plus "Running Out," ends as Gardner exclaims amidst Theremin-tuned keyboard wails that for the first time on the record, she is simply "tired of singing." Still, this is the duo's best yet and a song capsule that will surely lead to even more exploration. I don't think they ever intended to exit the sandbox entirely with Bring it Back. Maybe instead of getting up to finally leave the sandbox, the duo was really just looking for another shovel.
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