Our Constant Concern
By: Japanese Correspondent, Patrick Doherty
The latest release from San Francisco"s Mates Of State evokes many of the same aspects of its debut from two years ago: slightly bizarre vocal harmonies, poppy organ melodies, and somewhat obscure lyrics about the advantages of long-term relationships. Reviewers of the band constantly draw comparisons to the Northwest"s answer to dysfunctional-relationship-as-musical-partnership, Quasi. The reason is fairly simple: both bands cling to the same modern indie rock aesthetic, meaning that they play with a strong pop sensibility but are never indulgent with complex production techniques or whacked-out studio effects. And also, maybe, because they both feature organ/drum combinations prominently. Beyond these superficialities, the comparisons between the two become unfair for a number of reasons. Foremost among them is the fact that Mates Of State has not abrogated its pop roots on its latest release the way Quasi did with Sword Of God (a regrettable experiment of an album for a band that had just reached its apex).
But what irks Mates Of State and its fans the most is the blind indifference that some reviewers show toward the diametric lyrical styles of each band. Sure, the organs sound similar, and the musical niche is generally the same, but Mates Of State tends to glorify the meaningfulness of monogamy and commitment, whereas, Quasi is more inclined to sing about the boredom of it all. There are exceptions to this generalization with regard to both bands, of course, and Mates Of State has been known to deviate from its themes every now and again (much to the consternation of baby-carriage-toting indie rockers in the Bay Area), but the differences far outweigh the similarities.
Our Constant Concern, Mates Of State"s second full-length release, is much more polished than its debut, My Solo Project. This is not to say that there are lots of cheesy effects, but the rough edginess, which originally made them such darlings of the San Francisco music scene, is noticeably absent here. For a dyed-in-the-wool Mates Of State fan, this could pose a problem. No more vodorecorded ramblings of siblings. No more miss-matched notes or melodies. Not as much ridiculousness, and, consequently, not as much raw experimentation. Our Constant Concern turns out to be exactly what you might expect a sophomore release by a band trying to broaden its fan base to be: a smoother ride into fairly complicated lyrical filigree.
As a result, this record will prove to be more accessible for the uninitiated. The music is pretty straightforward. Delicate pop melodies surf among organ and drum mixes with a surprisingly successful detour into the much-maligned arena of emo-core (it is on Polyvinyl, after all). But this isn"t going to be enough to hold your interest. For this, the band employs its peculiar vocal harmonies, which are, at times, difficult to figure out, making you wonder if harmonizing is even the goal. Is the band simply yelling at each other in a recording studio? Who knows? On repeated listenings, the disparate vocal tones play out pretty well, and they are as intriguing as they are jarring. The organ is still the powerhouse of the band"s instrumentation, though. There"s a bit more focus on arrangement this time around, which is reflected in the more polished nature of the execution of the songs. The downside here is that there are fewer organ solos, but the overall consistency of Our Constant Concern makes up for such minor defects. Arguably, the tradeoff will be acceptable to the intended audience.
Musical talent notwithstanding, the ultimate selling point of this band must be the unique niche that it fills lyrically. As a "couple", the members of Mates Of State (Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel) don"t seem to mind writing about their relationship, or at least a semi-fictionalized representation of it. What sets their writing apart is the emotional complexity. You will find no gag-worthy "Ooh, baby I love you" cliches in Mates Of States" lyrics, thankfully. Instead, you can bend your head around curious lines like: "Clean out your eyes/I never meant to be your disguise/so, clean out your eyes/covering is all just the same." Or maybe you can make more sense out of "Without small leads, you"re about as good as done/you"re never around/I do nothing to provoke you and I just hope that you still notice me/we"re no longer than a ten-year-old." Bands that are fearless enough to write about the complexity of love rather than the emotive simplicity of its beginnings and ends should get more credit than Mates Of State does. It must be challenging as a songwriter to develop these kinds of ideas on paper, not to mention marrying them to music; and that becomes Mates Of States" greatest appeal as a band. The fact that it has retained – and even broadened – its ability to weave obtuse lyrics into equally off-kilter melodies from its debut release is a good sign.
By strengthening the best aspects of its songwriting and distinctive vocal harmonizing, Mates of State is likely to win over more supporters. But without the raw energy that permeated its first album, there will undoubtedly be something lacking in Our Constant Concern for some older fans. While a good album from a good band, Our Constant Concern may go down as a testament to the increasing professional pressures in what is ostensibly an "independent" music scene, and how much that pressure to broaden the appeal " even at that level – takes the fun out of it all.