When married people make records

Husband-and-wife band Mates of State’s album ‘Bring it Back’ is full of irreconcilable differences

Emily Garber

Mates of State is a tease.

The first time I listened to its new album, “Bring it Back,” I bounced pleasantly in my seat to the first track. It seemed traditional and cute, upbeat and pleasant.

Fifteen minutes later, I realized I hadn’t heard the past five tracks. In fact, I had forgotten any music was playing at all. I had tuned it out completely.

In contrast to the first song, “Think Long,” the rest of the new album blends together, forming a mush of charming theories that yield ugly executions.

Mates of State is known for its cuteness – and its marketability. Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner are husband and wife. Their music is guitarless, comprised instead of a vintage Yamaha Electone organ and minimalist drum set. They have a child, Magnolia, and she’s adorable. In their first three albums, their music was about personal chemistry – the one-on-one emotion of pop’s darker side.

But on “Bring it Back,” they abuse the gimmicks. Gardner and Hammel bring in third, fourth and fifth parties in the form of overdubbed vocals, expansively produced keyboard harmonies and ornamental percussion.

It’s awkward, like the baby’s in the room when they’re trying to make another one. Their child even coos on the album, at the end of “Nature and the Wreck.”

While they’ve always dabbled in the heavier side of buoyancy, Mates of State never has crossed over the line into ballad territory. The heavy keyboards in “Nature and the Wreck” are charming, sure, but Debbie Gibson easily could have sold this as a single in the ’80s.

“Bring it Back” is Mates of State’s first album released on Barsuk Records, the same label Rilo Kiley and Rocky Votolato call home. Polyvinyl released all but one of its previous albums, including “Team Boo” and “Our Constant Concern.”

Might it be that Mates of State’s label-switching has anything to do with their ill-fitting album? I don’t think Barsuk knows their size.

The song “Fraud in the ’80s” is the most shapeless of them all. It begins with something we’ve seen before: rhythmic keyboard beats. Then it goes crazy. Layered in the song are (to be read in one breath) overdubbed keyboards resembling a guitar bass-heavy backbeats showy drums Hammel’s muted singing his words not harmonizing with but drowned out by his wife’s boring, pieced-together vocals.

The chances to inhale come sparingly and in the wrong places, with songs like “Nature and the Wreck” or “What it Means.” But instead of offering escape, the songs trap us in monotone dullness.

Mates of State’s gimmicks have gone one step too far on “Bring it Back.” The band whose PDA used to be endearing, not nauseating, needs to bring back the tenderness.