To paraphrase a famous musical meditation on solitude: As numbers go, two can be just as desperate, miserable and lonely as one. Over the past couple of years, several duos have shown us that simply equipping an outfit with both a boy and a girl does not guarantee anima-like harmony. Consider Quasi, the poppy but tortured outfit led by a former husband-and-wife team who rarely acknowledge that there has ever been anything between them but Marshall stacks.
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From the first notes that organist/vocalist Kori Gardner and drummer/vocalist Jason Hammel belt together on Our Constant Concern, it is clear that there is something between the two members of Mates of State -- something as boisterous, unflinching and raw as real, unbridled emotion. Gardner has made a point of separating Mates of State, the band, from Kori and Jason, the couple that shares a bed (in San Francisco, where they moved from Lawrence, Kansas) and a marriage vow: The pair wed soon after their first release, My Solo Project, came out in 2000.
Whatever their personal dynamic, Gardner and Hammel relate foremost as musicians -- at least on record. Both are accomplished players and veteran bandmembers who dumped traditional instrumentation in favor of the more minimal organ/drum configuration. Gardner's massive keyed contraption is not exactly a subtle instrument, all fizz and primordial hum, and thanks to the help of producer Dave Trumfio (who's worked with Wilco and the Pulsars), Our Constant Concern is never lacking fullness, energy or texture. Mates of State plays with tempo changes, often lurking around in spindly call-and-response melodies before launching throaty, shut-up-and-listen choruses on songs like "Hoarding It for Home" and "Quit Doin' It."
Still, it's difficult to listen to the ten songs here and not imagine the domestic scenes that inspired them. Our Constant Concern is full of the kind of opaque jokes and musings that usually arise in the intimate and individualized spaces inhabited by two people in love. That Gardner and Hammel sing to each other, in tandem and very loudly throughout this brief and often jubilant outing only heightens the listener's sensation of having dropped in on a particularly lively lovers' reverie.
It's not an exclusive party, however: Mates of State are welcoming, sharing music that is happy but contemplative ("I Know, and I Said Forget It") and too smart to be dismissed as sappy. This is clever, crafty pop made by players who ignore the indie-rock ethos that prefers angst to expression. "As Night as Now," the album's final track, suggests what just might be the Mates of State MO: "Move or decide it/Let us sing out/Forgetting all/Let us sing out."