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Mates of State - Mountaintops

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Artist: Mates of State

Album: Mountaintops

Label: Polyvinyl

Review date: Sep. 28, 2011

Pop music doesn’t have to be frivolous, and good pop music certainly isn’t. Mates of State’s new album, Mountaintops, is full of beautiful melodies and harmonies, layered in such a way to maximize the sound spectrum. In a world filled with drek, we need music like this that, in the absence of an Effexor prescription, will lift our spirits so that we don’t feel eternally shitty.

Mates of State are a joyful duo, and in that joy, they are able to, both lyrically and musically, articulate new emotions and ideas, and pass the same feelings off to the band’s audience. It also helps that Mates of State feel emotionally and aesthetically honest. With a great deal of pop music mired in ambiguous “he”s and “she”s or surface-level relationship dross that anyone could write, Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel write specific songs with specific feelings. Perhaps it’s because they are married. While being in a band is certainly an intimate relationship that can build over time, it’s very obviously not the same thing as being in a long-term, committed romantic relationship. Those two bonds — romantic and musical — feed into each other, and that doubly-reinforced intimacy allows one a certain safety net.

When one is an artist, putting something you’ve made out into the world is an incredibly fear and anxiety-producing enterprise, especially in a world full of message boards and Twitter, where anyone can tell you their raw, unarticulated opinion at anytime. However, there’s also the fear of failure, the fear of being out of vogue, the fear of being disliked by your peers, the fear of success and of the pressure of having to continue producing art of the same quality, the fear of never growing artistically, the fear of always having a day job, the fear of going back to one’s former day job, the fear of being surpassed by your contemporaries, the fear of giving in to resentment and so on. And this is just a fraction of the paralyzing fears that exist in the performing arts. It’s kind of amazing that anyone at all creates things for consumption knowing the terrifying host of existential wraiths that hide inside most creative minds.

Worse than, or at least on par with, letting fear stop one from creating in the first place, is letting fear constrict one’s creativity. It often forces artists to play it safe, to depart from the fold minutely at best and to crank out dead-sounding songs to attract the same audience. Gardner and Hammel are one of those rare instances, though, where having that emotional and aesthetic security helps mitigate that fear, allowing them to go in new directions and articulate new feelings. They could have easily been any other pop band, cranking out pleasant but forgettable music that distracts you slightly from your impending death, but having that intimacy at their core gives them the strength to be bolder in their compositions and emotions, where perhaps other groups might have faltered. It’s perhaps one of the big reasons people get together to form bands and writing groups and sketch teams in the first place: banding together not just to accelerate the artistic process but also to combat the collective fears and anxieties.

Mountaintops certainly isn’t radically different from Mates of States’ other albums, but when the band has this kind of rapport, there’s no need to deviate.

By Andrew Beckerman

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