CD Review of Re-Arrange Us by Mates of State
Recommended if you like
Stars, Belly, Ben Folds
Label
Barsuk
Mates of State:
Re-Arrange Us

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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D
on’t look now, thirtysomethings, but the alt-pop you loved so much in the ‘80s and ‘90s hasn’t just grown up, it’s having babies. Moaning about how fucked up you and your life are? That’s old news – crafting irresistible pop tunes about your domestic bliss is the new grunge, and Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, otherwise known as Mates of State, are at the vanguard. The married duo’s fifth album, Re-Arrange Us, finds them continuing their transition from raucous ADD-fueled pop into a smoother, more sedate sound – a change that, to read a sizeable percentage of initial reviews, has sucked all the life out of the band.

Don’t believe the hype. It’s true that Gardner has traded in her organ in for pianos and synths, and it’s also true that Hammel takes a much more measured approach to the drums on this outing – but it’s also true that these 10 bite-sized songs (none of them run longer than 4:30) are packed with sweet, shiny pop goodness. It might be hard for longtime fans to evaluate Re-Arrange Us objectively on its own merits, but they should try, because worthwhile albums about married life are few and far between – and most of them fall toward the time-to-call-a-lawyer end of the spectrum, like Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights.

Mates of State

No shots are fired here, to put it mildly – while Gardner and Hammel aren’t shy about chronicling love’s downs along with its ups, their aggressively bright harmonies help keep the dramatic stakes from getting too high; each problem is just a passing cloud on a sunny day. It’s easy to see why some people have recoiled from the borderline cutesiness of some of these songs, but removed from Mates of States’ earlier work, they’re really quite charming – one or two listens is all it’ll take to embed tracks like “The Re-Arranger,” “Get Better,” and “Jigsaw” permanently in the deepest pop-thirsty nooks and crannies of your brain.

By the time you get to your 15 or 20th listen, however, Re-Arrange Us’ charms may have started to wear thin. They leap out of the speakers instantly, but the sheer pervasiveness of Gardner and Hammel’s 1,000-watt harmonies has an ear-numbing effect after awhile, compounded by the chilly precision of the production and arrangements. The songs present a full-bodied picture of married life and parenthood, but the sound is monochromatic, and the result can be off-putting in repeated doses.

In the end, this album’s haters, though misguided, do have a point – Re-Arrange Us would have benefited from a heavy dose of Gardner’s trusty old organ. It would have helped inject some much-needed sonic warmth into these songs, and probably taken the edge off some of those negative reviews. Like your married friends’ kids, these songs are adorable, but you probably aren’t going to want to live with them.

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