Mates of State – Re-Arrange Us (2008)
1. Get Better
3. My Only Offer
4. The Re-Arranger
6. Blue and Gold Print
7. Help Help
8. You Are Free
9. Great Dane
10. Lullaby Haze
It’s not easy to write a happy song. Or at least not a good one, rather than the sort of insipid pablum that fans begin to regret two months after loving it. A large chunk of the best pop music covers the negative end of the emotional spectrum, be it depression, sadness, longing, or anger. Hell, I just described a large chunk of the music on my iPod, even though I’m a pretty happy, well-adjusted guy.
I bring this up because writing good, happy songs is Mates of State‘s stock in trade. Husband and wife duo Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner have been making pleasant pop music through five albums since 2000’s My Solo Project, maturing from a disorganized, sometimes manic electropop outfit to a more polished indie pop duo. Because their music leans on the happy, mushy side, it has been unfairly maligned of late as twee and MOR, when the truth is that they’re being successful in the road less travelled. (Okay, they are undeniably twee, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing). There’s a million great songs about the one that got away, or somebody done me wrong songs, but if a couple wants to sing songs about their love, suddenly they lose their cred.
Re-Arrange Us follows the style of 2006’s Bring It Back (their best album to date) as tighter than their earlier efforts, whose shambolic nature made them uneven. The new wrinkle for this effort is a greater emphasis on organic instruments, at times replacing Gardner’s usual electric organ arrangements with piano, while mixing in guitars, trumpets, and cellos. The result is another ultra-hooky pop album that should appeal to anyone who enjoyed their last effort, with songs that range from from blissfully happy (“Jigsaw”) to positivity in the face of trials (“Get Better”).
The duo have been softening their edge with each subsequent album, perhaps another reason for a small backlash against the band, with the typical indie obsession that somehow a band that appears in an AT&T commercial is now mainstream (despite the fact that they’re still largely unknown by the typical top 40 listener). The truth is, Re-Arrange Us is an accessible pop album, and delightfully so. Lead-off single “Get Better” is a perfect summer hit, building from an insistent piano and Gardner’s lithe vocals to a glorious crescendo of “Everything’s gonna get lighter, even if it never gets better” backed by Hammel’s percussion and the rising strings of a cello.
The next track, “Now” is an uptempo number that would have fit in perfectly with Bring It Back. The album proceeds with these uptempo, sing-song numbers through the satisfying first half of the album, until it slows down with “Blue and Gold Print”, the only truly slow song on the album, and the weakest effort of the bunch. The latter half is more mellow, yet still uptempo enough to encourage toe-tapping, highlighted by “Help Help”.
My biggest knock on Re-Arrange Us is its brief 35 minute running time. The lean record does avoid unnecessary filler, but also has the effect of being over not long after it begins. Another couple of songs would have served the effort better, making it feel less like EP despite its ten tracks. But the 35 minutes they do offer are generally strong, bolstered by a strong first half of pleasing pop songs that should please fans while putting a smile on their face.