Calling Mates Of State "charming" qualifies as faint praise, but it's also one of the best ways to describe the San Francisco-based husband-wife duo, since they do charm as well as anyone in their indie-pop class. Like Quasi, Yo La Tengo, Butterglory, and a handful of other married (and divorced) rockers, Mates Of State exploits the tension of a romantic and creative collaboration. On their fourth album, Bring It Back, vocalist-keyboardist Kori Gardner and vocalist-drummer Jason Hammel work to separate their talents, then reunite them with renewed purpose. Case in point: the album-opener "Think Long," which has Gardner and Hammel doing their own simultaneous, interlocking chants over a high electronic hum and a syncopated beat, then finally syncing up after nearly three minutes to recite the title together. It's a catchy—and, yes, charming—piece of pop deconstruction, but it's also a demonstration of what partnership means.
Mates Of State specializes in happy-sounding music that trades on DIY roughness and classic girl-pop coo, as on "For The Actor," where the distorted, eruptive synthesizer supports a helplessly bouncy tune, and "Like U Crazy," where the cascading piano and escalating melody match the lyrics' rising ardor. The songs skirt the edge of cute, but Gardner and Hammel's forthrightness and skillful arrangement keep them from becoming too sugary. They're more triumphant than twee. Bring It Back isn't exactly a set of love songs, but a song like the punchy "Punchlines," with its shifting tempos and call-and-response verses, definitely celebrates the sound of two voices working alone, and working as one.