That Crazy Circus Music
You can wait all night
I’ll never stop complaining
As I look into those eyes, I can’t behave
‘Cause this song’s not right
It’s the legend that you’re after
I’m occluded ’round the clock a central shame from “Whiner’s Bio”, Mates of State
Several years ago, soon after the discovery of what I have called the musical treasure trove (over 20 gigs of music, from classics I should have known to recent popular and independent music), I embarked upon a rigorous musical education program. Every day on my subway ride I would listen to three albums on shuffle; I would listen to each song for its own virtue. Then, if the songs struck me enough, I would listen to an album straight through.
On a day when I was trying to figure out if I liked Le Tigre (I don’t really, screw “my metrocard” and when I was trying to figure out why the magical gnome who introduce me to this treasure was so convinced I would love Interpol, I serendipitously mixed one part Le Tigre with one part Micah P. Hinson and one part Mates of State.
Now, let me be clear. I was running through artists in rough alphabetical order. I tried to put artists together about whom I had no prior conceptions. On the morning commute, I became obsessed with Hinson’s “Don’t You” (I still remember walking down University Avenue with the wind in my face increasing the volume to hear the edges of his voice.)
(Check out Hinson if you don’t know his work)
On the way home, I missed my transfer at 42nd street because of a song called “Whiner’s Bio”. Before that day, I knew nothing of Mates of State. By the next morning, I had listened to the album Team Boo (2003) at least five times. Within a year, I had all of their albums and had watched their low-budget documentary. I was hooked. I was in love.
(As a side note, when I told the Gnome that I loved Mates of State but didn’t really care for Interpol, she said, really? I never would have thought that. I have no idea what it means.)
In retrospect, I am not that surprised that I fell for Mates of State. They almost fit the Elder’s profile to a T. They blend male and female voices with surprising and often challenging harmonies. They write short, memorable pop songs but don’t (usually) follow pop formulas. Their music is at once melodic and dissonant. They are a couple (with children!).
The early Mates of States sound falls somewhere among progressive rock, psychedelic show tunes, carnival music, all mixed together by musicians who might be mistaken for genetic admixtures of Frank Black (the Pixies) and John Linnell (They Might Be Giants). But even these comparisons do them no justice (while betraying my lamentable taste). When I first played Team Boo for my wife, she recoiled and asked “what is that crazy circus music”. By the end of a week, she was singing along.
Mates of State give the world a sound unlike any band I have ever heard: the female vocalist (Kori) plays keys (organ, piano, synthesizer) and the male drummer sings too. Both a good musicians. She has a supple and rich alto voice; he has a craggy but dependable tenor. This allows them to switch melodies mid-verse, engage in close and jarring harmonies and play with vocal arrangements (on their early albums) in ways that I have not heard from other acts.
I have seen Mates of State live twice. Even when Kori was six months pregnant, they put on a show that showcased their talent, energy and pure love for the music. They don’t just play their songs, they metamorphose into them.
The band’s first two albums (My Solo Project, 2000; Our Constant Concern, 2002) have some good tracks, help to develop their sound, and are worth listening to. Their fourth (Bring it Back, 2006) is quite good. 2008’s Re-Arrange Us, poppier and more conventional in song-structure, would be any other band’s best album (and, I am sure, some would argue this band’s best). Their recent album of covers (Crushes, 2010) and Mountaintops (2011) are less inspired. But who can be good forever?
It is 2003’s Team Boo that, for be, best typifies this band. It earns the highest marks on the listenability scale (every track is good; you don’t want to skip anything). It is memorable, different, challenging. But most important, it changes every time you hear it. I have listened to something on this album nearly every week for the past seven years.
I don’t know if Mates of State is influential. I don’t know how many fans they have. I do know that I think that this is one of the best albums of the decade. It is a lock for my Desert Island List.
What makes the album so great? How does it help to describe the virtues of the band? The tone is set (literally and figuratively) from the first song.“Ha Ha” starts with a classical keyboard prelude that reminds one of a harpsichord until the vocalists burst in with “I can’t tell what kind of life I’ve led today”—upon which cue the keyboard changes and the drums roar in.
The rest of the song is a delightfully typical example of the band’s early work: interesting and challenging harmonies, distinct voices singing in unison from near dissonance and song structure that by no means follows the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pattern pop songs. The meaning of the song is unclear; it breaks rules with multiple crescendos and several hooks that would be different songs for other artists. I don’t know what the song means. I don’t care. It moves and shifts as you listen to it—the musical equivalent of water’s surface under the force of a fierce wind.
My favorite song on the album—even my favorite Mates song—is the second track “Whiner’s Bio”. Again, the keyboard instrumentation is light and fun, while still at times surprising. The vocals are near perfect without. In what I might call a bridge, or something of a breakdown, the keys split off to a staccato beat and the vocalists sing different parts. This move is one of the tools of Mates’ first few albums, a move that I never tire of: the male vocalist splits off and sings the higher part; the woman slides down to a supportive alto part. At the end of longer phrases, the voices come together in unison.
The finest and, perhaps, most conventional, ‘song’ on the album is “Open Book”, which, nevertheless, still veers off staggeringly from the opening lines “It all begins with a smile /who is reading this”. In the pre-chorus, the vocalists split again, the female sings “I thought that you should know this is not an open book” as the drummer sings below “It’s the cycle of life…” until they unite on “the people that are pushing in their cheeks.” They repeat this with a slight lyric change until they get to the chorus: “tell me what you have / and that’s when I’ll know / if you have anything to start with”. After repeating the line and tracking over harmonies and new voices, they return to the verse/pre-chorus nearly forestalling a full crescendo—when they return to the chorus, the tracked-choir returns and after one repetition they turn to a bridge that builds to a quick ending. I have cooked, slept, driven, run and ridden while listening to this song.
The instrumentation of the album deserves considerable comment. The keyboardist mixes different sounds and chord voices against individual melody lines as the drummer uses percussion to drive the beat, fill the space around the melody and act as counterpoint to keys and vocals. They can sing prettily (as both do on “The Kissaway”); the keyboards can sound like circus music, classical music, or the driving pop-piano rock of a player like Ben Folds or Elton John.
Many of the tracks on the album exhibit the same tension between fun, challenging instrumentation, and vocals you want to sing along to butcan’t because the melody slides from one singer to the next. The third track, “Fluke” changes radically, as if, in under three minutes, it were undergoing the seismic movements of a far longer classical piece.
Even the less memorable tracks pass the ‘sing-along’ test and each one provides some surprise to make it precious: “Sound it Off” builds to another circus-like bridge they resolves the strong chord voicings with vocal harmonies; the second-to-last track “I got this Feelin’” creates and pays homage to déjà vu, calling us to think of repetition with the opening line “I got this feelin’ that I been here before” followed by harmonies and instrumentation that recall and build upon the previous songs. Familiarity, however, does not dispel their (or our confusion) as they sing “the others can hold their breaths so long as they understand / whoa whoa…” (and strangely, a bit off, “this couldn’t be more ghetto”). The album closes with the weakest track—“Separate the People” is played and sung softly for a change, and is a well-designed song with excellent arrangement and vocals. It is weak only by comparison to everything that comes before.
The fifth track “Middle is Gold” plays with harmony, melody and dissonance. The vocalists again split into different parts—the drummer almost yells his part, while the keyboardist sings prettily. When it comes to the chorus “that’s enough to drive you mad” they repeat with a jarring chord voicing on the keyboard and slide into the third harmonization on “mad”. Just when you think the song is going to fall apart they pull it back together. They break down to the drummer singing blithely “you can get only what it is you want / it is always the same by and by” with the female vocalist joining in and the two resolving into nonsense syllables. They repeat until you believe them.
“Gotta Get a Problem” veers from a full opened-mouth roar, to a martial march, to a melodic near-scat Is it a ballad? Is it a march? Is it a broadway tune? When alternates between the march and the lyric “out of the thinking air /one of us doesn’t care” (replete with a miraculous vocal swoon by the keyboardist) you don’t care. You’re along for the ride.
The strong point of the band, the thing that I cannot get over, is that they never bore you. The music, as I have said again and again, is challenging and surprising. The lyrics are almost always indirect and opaque. They invite you to engage with the music by making nothing easy. Mates of State doesn’t show or tell, they create a feeling. I have no idea what “Fluke’s” lyrics mean (“We lie in so many words / I said I’d take you down to the water’s edge and let you drown”) but I sing along; I have no notion what they mean when they sing “I wonder if I could tie the ocean to your knees” in “An Experiment” but I remember the image. They are also great at what many exceptional pop artists can do: they incorporate sighs, nonsense syllables and stretched vowels into the backing vocals and melodies. The voices are instruments as well as vessels for words.
The seventh song “Parachutes (Funeral Song)” showcases the band’s ability to use spare instrumentation and vocalization to the same effect as their chaos-driven songs: it opens with rim-hits and light cymbals on the drum kit; the keyboard uses a light, even whimsical, piano melody, and the vocals alternate until they sing together: “What I never had were pictures flashing by / what I had between the things I never tried / was you reaching out in hopes to hold your hand / I say I’m better because I lived before I died”.
Not one song on the album fits the pattern of a mainstream single. When I create Mates of State stations on Pandora, I find nothing that sounds like them and find myself introduced to music I mostly despise. I don’t know what any of this means.
I find myself confused whenever I try to figure this out. Mates of State are unlike anything I have ever heard, but I know so few people who like them. I can say without reservation that this is one of my top three favorite bands all time. Yet, at their shows, I find myself surrounded by people who are nothing like me (on the surface, at least).
Have I lost or missed something? I sent you Team Boo months ago, my brother. What do you think?