Mates of State, ‘Re-Arrange Us’

By • Jul 8th, 2008 • Category: Album Reviews

The Kills is a duo. So is The Black Keys, The Raveonettes, The White Stripes and Quasi. The two-piece isn’t a new phenomenon, and with the ever-growing list of rock ‘n’ roll pairs, it certainly is a popular one nowadays.

But that doesn’t mean musical tandems don’t still possess a sense of novelty about them. There’s that inevitable pause and shrug of surprise upon finding out that the not-so-meager record booming through the speakers comes courtesy of a band that could have driven to the studio comfortably in a Mazda Miata. Potentially touring the country in an economic, sporty two-seater comes with a price, however. The music of these acts forever comes qualified with a comparison to the number of members. “This is really heavy blues, and it’s only two guys.” Or “All this fuzzy distortion doesn’t sound like a duo; it sounds like a full band.”

It’s a crutch that fans fall upon when trying to talk up the catalogs of these pairs. It’s as if supporters know that the groups’ self-imposed restrictions eventually will be a shortcoming, and they want to preemptively strike any criticism about redundancy. That’s the thing about closely defined parameters: at some point, bands will work right up that fence and have nowhere else to go but to rerecord the same sounding albums again and again.

That’s not the case, however, with Mates of State. And it especially isn’t on the couple’s fifth full-length, Re-Arrange Us. Whereas other acts use the two-piece tag as a creative tool (“what can we challenge ourselves to do with only two people?”), the husband/wife combo doesn’t seem to care – or even notice – that it’s just the two of them.

Which works in Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel’s favor, because it allows the two to pen whatever pop ditties they want, buy into any harmony that jumps into their heads, and embrace all the catchy hooks they dream up, without having to decide whether it’s possible to pull it off using only drums and keyboards. By doing so, the Kansas act’s music—rather than their duo status—has always has been its centerpiece. While other names build their music around the idea of two, Mates of State build its songs however the members see fit – incorporating plush theatrics on par with larger ensembles.

Re-Arrange Us is no different, despite what it’s moniker might say. During the album opener, “Get Better,” Gardner’s bouncy notes ask us to “Forget your politics for a while/ Let the color schemes arrive.” She might as well have forewarned us to throw out all idea of rock ‘n’ roll pairs and allow her band to overwhelm us with its elaborate tunes. While “Now” is the shortest and catchiest tune on the album, culminating in a bridge certain to induce some driver’s-seat harmonizing, the longest and faux-title track “The Re-Arranger” breaks into several distinct segments, equally engaging. And if most of the 10 songs find the couple singing in unison, “Jigsaw” serves as a call-and-response between them.

Clocking in at just more than a half-hour, Re-Arrange Us is the band’s most thorough release. It’s Gardner and Hammel at their best because it’s one further step toward a grandiose pop record from a minimalist source. Yet it’s a source that isn’t afraid to sound bigger than it is, even if, you know, technically … they are just a duo.

Soundcheck Magazine, July 2008

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