Album Review: Mates of State – Mountaintops

[Barsuk; 2011]

At this point, over 10 years into their music career, Mates of State are a known quantity and stable presence in the world of indie pop. Staying viable this long is a feat that can’t be diminished, but it does present a classic evolutionary challenge for Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel: taking the trappings of the old and growing it until it’s new again.

If we’re thinking about the new, Mountaintops is Mates of State’s biggest-sounding album yet. The nail is officially and firmly in the coffin of their raw, clearly-just-organ-and-drum sound that helped characterize their early work. A lot of this is the prolific use of synths and similar effects, which on paper seems like a logical evolution for the band, and sometimes it is. Openers “Palomino” and “Maracas” manage to capture their tag team vocal maneuvers and frenzied style in good condition. But more often, the execution turns out to be unengaging and pedestrian.

Previous work could be giddy with vitality. On tracks like “Basement Money,” that unabashed whimsy is sacrificed in favor of synths straight out of 10-year-old trance songs. Instead of being infectious and inviting, Mountaintops just really, really wants you to dance, with all the insistency of a guy at a club that just won’t leave you alone. It makes a too deliberate attempt at being catchy, but it plainly just fails to find a vein. There are few points of excitement in the arrangement and noise provided by most of these 10 tracks.

The lack of specific sonic hooks comes into play with the other big void in this album: something seems to be missing on an emotional level. Although optimism and enthusiasm has always been one of the strongest qualities of Mates of State, it was usually contrasted with interesting noise and energy, like swirling organ work or mid-song tempo shifts. There’s no such support here. This time around, it can sound like all sugar with no spice. There are a couple of hearty pieces, specifically “Mistakes” and “Unless I’m Led,” but they’re hard to enjoy among the empty slogans of “Changes” (“Change is gonna come!”) or, again, “Basement Money” (“We wait! We don’t give up!”). There’s an attempt at anthemic build up here, but it lacks concrete drama.

That’s not to say that this album is unrecognizable. It’s still Mates of State. They still shout at the same time, write amusing oddball lyrics, and know how to work a melody. In fact, there’s a lot of potential for a great album down the road if they work out the kinks of production and recapture, and redefine, the magic of their writing. But, by itself, Mountaintops is a big, dry album that doesn’t move you anywhere.