Union of the State

Indie pop's cutest couple get back to basics

The indie-rock world has no shortage of couples making music together. Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan. Matt & Kim. Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon (OK, maybe scrap that one ...). But they don't come much cuter than Mates of State's Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel. From the bouncy low-fi pop found on their six albums since 2000 to the way they pack up their two little kids when it's time to tour, it's cuteness overload for one of music's most well-adjusted couples.

Longtime fans know you don't start prying into Mates of State songs for signs of marital strife or tales of infidelity. This is happy music made by happy people who bring their voices together in joyous, seamless harmonies that often blur the line where one ends and the other begins. Sometimes, if you're not paying really close attention, you can't tell if it's Gardner singing or Hammel.

Their latest album, Mountaintops, is all about making music with the one you love. The Connecticut couple occasionally feel disconnected from the people and places around them, but never from each other or their family. It's their most grown-up album, and their most revealing peek at the matrimonial harmony behind the musical harmony.

"We really tried not to take into account what people expect from us," says Gardner. "We wanted it to come out in a very real way this time."

After rearranging their sound a bit on 2008's Re-Arrange Us, Gardner and Hammel get back to the things that made them indie darlings in the first place: the sugar-rush pace of their songs, the DIY spark that ignites so much of their music, and the fuss-free organ-and-drums setup that powers their super-hooky pop. Despite what Gardner says, Mountaintops might be the most Mates of State-sounding album in their decade-long catalog.

From the shimmering "Palomino" to the jittery "Maracas" to the reflective "At Least I Have You," the record comes pretty close to whatever the opposite of a breakup album is. It's a celebration of a deeper kind of love. "We sing about our musical life together, not our love life," says Gardner. "That's a huge misconception about this band. We're personal songwriters, but not that personal."

Gardner says she and Hammel are no different than any other couple. They have arguments. They need their space once in a while. And they can get on each other's nerves. But extra-springy indie-pop songs are no place to air those grievances. "We definitely have our moments," she says. "But we're really good at working together. I know what he'll never budge on, he knows what I'll never budge on, and we know when we have to meet in the middle. I can tell him completely, abruptly, and honestly what I think."

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