Streamlining was the best thing Mates of State ever did. Three albums into a career of amiably frenetic bubbly-pop, usually charmed and occasionally spoiled by the dwelt-on detail that the band’s only two members were also husband and wife, they realized that songs – not any songs, but their songs – sounded a lot better with an attention span. In 2006, shortly after the birth of their first daughter, Kori Gardner (electric organ and the like) and Jason Hammel (drums) released Bring It Back, for which they concentrated on thoughtfully developing a few ideas at a time rather than cramming seven or eight into each song. It turned out great. “Maturation” is an uncommonly apt term for the space leading up to that album, in part because Gardner and Hammel accepted the virtues and duties of being grown up, and in part because they conceded that it was okay to assemble songs in a more or less traditional way.
In a superficial sense, most of what there is to say about Re-Arrange Us will have already been said. Just as (handily enough in this case) the birth of the second child is a lot less life-transforming than that of the first, Bring It Back constituted such a significant and rewarding change that its effects have lingered and, at least so far, split the Mates’ output blindly into its pre-children (twee-spazz) and post-children (indie-pop) eras. That’s not a bad thing yet: Gardner and Hammel haven’t come close to exhausting their songwriting prowess, and Re-Arrange Us is probably their most appealing album to date. But it also follows the example of Bring It Back pretty unswervingly, in tone and theme as well as structure and sequencing. Both open tentatively (here with lead single “Get Better”), close in a solemn hush, and tiptoe in the middle between rousing and poignant. The change that should be biggest, Gardner’s near-total switch from organ to piano, doesn’t register as a decisive redesign; it feels like a small, tasteful refinement.
And that’s how the whole record plays out: very familiar but for a few perfected details. In a way Re-Arrange Us is doubly streamlined – it is to Bring It Back what Bring It Back was to the first three albums: more uniformly heartstring-tugging, more delicate and confident, more comfortable with being “traditional.” The arrangements here glisten with Walla-ed out attention to detail; the vocal harmonies slip-slide into generally sensational choruses, and occasionally trigger epiphanies in unexpected places. Now and then you can hear the manic, everything-now energy of the Mates’ early personas peeking through, occasionally for a whole song (“Help Help”) but more often in a single facet, a smart transition or a surprising bridge (“You Are Free,” “Blue and Gold Print”). The difference is that there’s no affectation now, no spin. They’re not playing eight songs at once for fear of being predictable, nor are they settling down because it’s a sound career move. They haven’t evolved much since the last time out, and that stasis is a peculiar saving grace: the newsworthy shift to adulthood behind them, they get to go about their craft unselfconsciously.
Watching the duo grow up (as it were) has been satisfying for that reason: as they’ve stripped away the pretense and learned to trust their plain and unelaborate talents, they’ve come closer to pinpointing and amplifying the simple goodness of the pop song. As with label buddies Death Cab for Cutie, that’ll be enough for a few more albums, and then it will be time to deal with mid-life. Fortunately, nothing so far has suggested they’re not equal to the task.