Beneath the sugary sweet surface of the perfect pop songs that Mates of States craft lies a vein of deep truth. Their discography could be a diary of married life, from the thrills of first love to doubts of lasting love. Given that the driving force behind the band is married couple Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, 2008’s Re-Arrange Us felt uncomfortably autobiographical at times. Lines like “Everything’s gonna get lighter/Even if it never gets better,” “My friends they all agree/Give in to our defeat,” and all of “The Re-Arranger,” feel like intimate revelations of private details from spousal spats. The songs feel like a couple going through a rough patch where they haven’t given up on the relationship but haven’t quite yet they found the way forward.
Mountaintops, their 2011 follow-up, continued the autobiographical, lyrical theme but instead of finding a couple at a crossroads, they now sang of perseverance, of taking one another back, of accepting change, of needing each other; they turned into a couple comfortable in stability. While the narrators of their songs might not always be Garner and Hammel in actuality, it’s easy — and rather romantic — to imagine the two musicians hashing out their problems over the piano/organ and drumkit for more than fifteen years.
Gardner and Hammel met while attending college in Lawrence, Kansas, where they realized that the music they made together was something special. They left the Midwest for San Francisco, eventually quitting their day jobs to focus on Mates of State. The sunniness of California still shines through in the layered keyboards and tight harmonies of their songs, even though they left the west coast for Connecticut a decade ago.
What began as a duo of organs and drums has expanded to include brass, strings, and the occasional guitar, but despite the additions Mates of State sound even more like themselves; like a couple who knows who they are and where they are going. Fifteen years of writing songs together — not to mention living together and raising two daughters together — have turned Gardner and Hammel into masters of hooks, both musical and lyrical. The exuberance of their earlier albums is more subdued but is still present just beneath the surface, and their voices still sound like they were meant for one another.
Opening for Mates of State at their April 14 High Noon Saloon show (tickets here!) is local musician Hannah Luree’s band Oh, My Love! In February she successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise album recording funds. To further support her new endeavor she has been playing shows in Madison and Milwaukee in between recording sessions. Her sweet, twee vocals and ukulele belie the dense lyrics that comprise her songs.
Catch Mates of State’s earnest pop melodies at their “seated acoustic piano/drums/voices/strings/horns tour,” along with rising Madison star Hannah Luree and her band Oh, My Love! at the High Noon Saloon this Monday, April 14.