Mates of State
March 21, 2006
So: 7 p.m. last night, freezing because it was the first day of spring and I didn’t want to wear a coat, my girlfriend Bridget and I walking around Union Square trying to find the already-mythical Manhattan Trader Joe’s (prognosis: totally cheap and nice, too crowded but the Disney World-level line moves fast, addiction to chipotle pistachios now re-upped; I’m never going to Whole Foods ever again if I have anything to say about it). We’re walking past the Virgin Megastore windows, and Bridget notices that there’s a band playing in the cafe there, that it’s all full utterly amped high school kids, that we don’t have anywhere to be for the rest of the night and there’s no reason not to go check it out.
Turns out it’s Mates of State, the married keyboards-and-drums emo-pop duo who we both liked a while ago. The first time I voted in a year-end critics’ poll, I listed Our Constant Concern as my 10th-favorite album of 2002. Back then, the band seemed like Rainer Maria with less drama: the singers had better voices and didn’t try to work them against the current of their music, the band’s couple wasn’t broken up and didn’t seem like they ever would be, and they used prettily fuzzed-up organs instead of stunning guitar squalls, but they were pretty much exactly the same in every other way, and that was just fine. And then Rainer Maria went and made a boring album, and I completely stopped checking for both bands, which was probably a ridiculous thing to do. Catching up today, Mates of State are just now dropping their first album in three years, and they haven’t changed much; their choruses are a little stickier, and their production has been polished up to O.C.-ready levels, but they still do the dizzy joyous shouted choruses and new-wavey whoa-oh-ohs, and they still rock the piled-up sugar-rush organs and precariously busy drums. Onstage, they still face each other and make adorable goo-goo eyes. They didn’t play any songs I knew last night, but it didn’t much matter. The Virgin Megastore turns out to be perfect for in-store appearances; they let bands play really loud, they have clear sound, there’s a stage with lights and everything, and only a couple of unnecessarily thick columns really get in the way of sightlines. And it certainly didn’t hurt that about half the crowd looked like they’d just gotten out of high school, including the two girls dancing behind the LIFEbeat table, and they were happier to be there than most of the paying crowds I’ve seen over the last couple of months. It was nice.
The band’s half-hour set was strong and focused, and they looked happy and confident, although someone needs to find out whether the Virgin Megastore actually requires all the bands that play in-stores there to wear shades of red and black that perfectly match the banner behind the stage; it’s the second time I’ve seen that happen. It probably won’t even end up being the best show I see this week (I’m guessing that’ll be the Prodigy tonight), but that doesn’t much matter. What matters is that New York is the sort of dazzling cultural wonderland where you can end up stumbling upon a surprisingly good free indie-rock show when you’re out looking for a damn grocery store. If I ever get used to this, please kick me in the face.