Review Summary: That awkward dinner together when you realize you already know everything you care to know about your date.
It’s already difficult enough for me to convince my girlfriend to watch Man vs. Food
when another interminable episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
is drawing her into its manicured claws, and we haven’t been together for over a decade nor released seven studio albums of quality indie pop. Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner have, and while I can’t say anything about their divergent television interests, I can imagine that years of touring and stressful studio sessions would create their fair share of tension. Hell, Matt & Kim have only been together since 2005, yet anyone who has seen them live can attest they have already resorted to crystal meth to maintain their relationship. Mates of State, meanwhile, have shown nary a crack, and neither has their music – bucolic, airy indie pop album after indie pop album. Seventh album Mountaintops
does little to change this formula, to the point where perhaps a better title would have been Plateaus
It’s a testament to their ability to keep working with each other that Mountaintops
starts off with one of their strongest songs to date in the vibrant “Palomino,” which reinforces everything that makes Mates of State veteran masters of their craft. Gardner and Hammel’s so-perfect-it-was-destined harmonies, their motley array of instruments that require a good deal of studio tinkering and a general sense of cheer in the air that falls just short of twee. “We were born on the other side, we were wild and living,” the duo intone together, and if there’s a song that lyrically seems to deny all of Mates of State’s ethos, it’s this one. Mates of State have never been wild nor daring, and for all “Palomino’s” soaring hooks and feelings of wonderment, it’s still a quintessentially Mates of State song. The modes may change: you get your ‘80s-revival in the bouncy synths of “Maracas;” your groovy keyboard anthem in “Basement Money;” your down tempo ballad (with poignant horns of course) with “Desire.” In general, though, it’s what we’ve come to expect from Mates of State.
Actually, “Desire” stands out from the rest because it’s so good at flipping the Mates of State dynamic on its head – by being uncommonly introspective and wistful, it stands out like a sore thumb, particularly situated as it is right before the bombastic “Changes.” It’s where Mates of State surprises that Mountaintops
really shines, on the thumping minor keys of “Unless I’m Led,” the strikingly emotional “Mistakes” and the album’s best track, the so-ridiculous-it-works Motown homage “Total Serendipity.” The jittery tempo and back-and-forth between Hammel and Gardner on the vocals give “Total Serendipity” almost a punk vibe, and the way things downshift into the chorus give the whole song a sense that anything can happen. These moments of stepping outside of the indie pop comfort zone are what give Mountaintops
a bit of zest, but it’s also what makes the album less than a stellar affair. “Total Serendipity” and “Desire” are those little bits and pieces that hint at something greater; most everything else is, well, another Mates of State record. There’s something to be had there, for sure, like continuity and the fact that a couple can still make a great record fourteen years into everything and not sound like they hate each other. Until they decide to take more than the occasional risk, though, Mates of State will always be that cute couple that others always compliment on “how GOOD they look together!” but no one really wants to party with.