Romance Language

I told you I won't play the drums until you take out the garbage: Mates of State
urtesy of Polyvinyl Records

"Who put the bomp in the bomp pa bomp pa bomp?
Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?
Who put the bop in the bop shoo bop shoo bop?
Who put the dip in the dip da dip da dip?
Who was that man?
I'd like to shake his hand
He made my baby fall in love with me."

--"Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)," Barry Mann, 1961

Barry Mann is shaking his own hand somewhere. He got his baby (fellow bomp-maker Cynthia Weil), answering his own questions even as he posed them, and together they became the penultimate bomp-makers next to God and/or the radio. As a consequence, other babies fell in love with other babies and then made more babies. Instead of making even more babies, though, some of these third-generation kids just made more songs. By this time, "bomp pa bomp pa bomp" wasn't a question, but a formidable declaration in and of itself.

Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel haven't made any babies yet, but they speak the secret patois of rock music within their band, Mates of State. In fact, they don't just speak it, they want to translate it, move it outside the walls of kinship, because they realize that rock isn't about alienating the rest of the world by erecting impenetrable obstacles of sound and words. They know that "bomp pa bomp pa bomp" is really about uniting people through the languages they didn't know they spoke. On their superb new record, Team Boo, they continue building that lexicon for our listening (and jumping-around-the-living-room) pleasure.

It's hard to tell from their records, but the band's instrumentation consists solely of a beat-up Gretsch traps kit and an early '70s Yamaha electronic organ, no overdubs--a potentially clumsy combination of obsolete devices that belies a wild range and depth of expression, the very definition of language itself. On top of that are their voices, singing forcefully without lapsing into screaming--sometimes connecting, sometimes contrasting, sometimes reacting, always deliberately and conscientiously--in a way that transcends communication without foundering in artiness. Such that the chorus for "Ha Ha," the album's opening track, is a unison "A AH HA-HA HAH HA-HA HAA HAH AH HAH AH-AH HA-A!" Aside from being useful shorthand for "I love you" or "This rocks," it's possibly the only palindrome you'll be humming a week later.

Mates of State's married-with-band slant has been played up in critical circles to the degree that their previous records (2000's My Solo Project and the subsequent Our Constant Concern), while universally lauded (and rightfuckingly so), have also been dumbed down. They've been characterized as artfully domestic call-and-response bickering, fueled by a musical chemistry that's been reduced by titillated critics to "sexual tension"--as if those assholes knew what that was, or had any business bringing it up even if they did. Do Kori and Jason fuck? I'd imagine so. But more importantly, their amazing dual-vocal, keyboard-and-drum songs speak a language of which fucking is by far the least interesting dialect.

Granted, taking the "sexy couple band" angle is an easy mistake to make, especially if you've seen them play. Gardner is a distaff Elton John, barely taming her growling, keening organ with her entire personage and still finding moments for some endearing acrobatics. An arm's length away from her, Hammel is all over his drums, sweat pouring into his own open mouth as he endeavors to sing louder than he's playing (he almost succeeds). And they never lose eye contact for the entire show. They lend new meaning to "band chemistry," although it can't readily be quantified.

It's this ingrained chemistry that enables them to dispense with the clichés of autobiography and infantile fantasy, the oddly paired perspectives so common to indie rock and particularly emo. Rather than cultivating romantic failures as songwriting fodder and letting the audience translate it into simple narcissism (see Dashboard Confessional et al.), the happily matched Mates write songs that sigh and say, "Thank God we've already been through this bullshit." On "Whiner's Bio," Gardner and Hammel simultaneously project what their band could be, what they could be, and what their audience could tolerate in a universe where everyone concerned is a little less vigilant and a little less lighthearted. "This is the writing of the whiner's bio.../I can relate/I can't relate/When everything stays the same/Da da da da da da da dum." The nonsense syllables say nothing, but they sing volumes.

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