Yes, yes, Mates of State are, above and before anything else, very cute. Blame it on the squishy, Rugrats-style organ, the boy-girl shouting melodies, or the fact that bandmates Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel are married with two children, but the duo have been haunted by the those four letters – C-U-T-E – like pockmarks on a baby face. But that word – and it's always that word, never “energetic,” or “fist-pumping,” or “wide-eyed,” all of which do the Lawrence, KS, group's sound equal justice – that has followed them throughout their ten-plus year career.
Come to think of it, though, maybe “cute” is the mot juste for Mates of State – that is, the most perfect possible term. After all, the cuteness of childhood is far more complicated than most people remember. Childhood, with its implicit sensitive emotions and limited understanding, is just as open to terror and darkness as it is to the sugary sunshine of Saturday morning cartoons. Cute gets you targeted by older kids and lurking prowlers; cute doesn't understand the violence it sees; cute is frustrated by the pat on its head when it asks questions. This is the kind of “cute” in which Gardner and Hammel spend their time, their angular vocals falling atop one another in anxious frustration while Gardner's vintage Yamaha organs wheeze over Hammel's insistent drums.
Sound, though, is nothing without structure, and Gardner and Hammel are master arrangers. Using her organ like a guitar, Gardner drapes washes of arpeggiated distortion over sweeping bass piano, Hammel's drums pushing the sound. This is dramatic, anthemic, and wide-eyed music; as Paste's Corey DuBrowa put it in his review of this year's Re-Arrange Us, it's “pure pop for adults who haven't quite grasped that they're adults yet.” And while it's certainly pop, it's pop in the same sense that the Beach Boys and the Beatles but also the New Pornographers and of Montreal are pop – they're stretching the limits of what the term means, of how to make music that is just as interesting as it is accessible.
The duo were pegged by Ira Glass to provide the musical interludes for last year's This American Life spoken-word tour. For their Calvin performance, they will be joined by a string quartet.