Mates of State have managed to create their own distinct sound by keeping it simple. It's been all about Kori Gardner's keys and Jason Hammel's drums (oh, they're married, if you haven't heard) and the duo's strident, catchy vocal interplay. If it's a basic pop sound, it's one that works, and the best of their songs may seem simple, but they move in deceptively intricate ways.
As they've grown as a band, especially since 2005's All Day EP, they have begun to expand on that sound. They still sound like a duo, Gardner and Hammel are front and center, but there's a bigger sound to the production and subtle flourishes around their playing. Mountaintops is their most expansive sound to date. Voices are high in the mix and spread out with deep echo, Gardner's keyboards come in tumbling layers, and Hammel's drums have both a deep crash and a heavily produced sheen.
Of course, the best stuff here still sounds like trademark Mates of State. Opener "Palomino" is a fantastic pop song, the vocal harmonies high and lilting, a more expansive version of the energetic pop of their best record, 2003's Team Boo. "Maracas," even with that wobbling keyboard sound, is a bit more straightforward but just as catchy. The two sound perfectly in sync with one another, and set up another record of charging pop tunes, that maybe move a touch quicker than their last record, 2008's Re-Arrange Us.
Things change from there, both for better and worse. We do get a few risks here, which is good to see, and some pay off. "Total Serendipity" is a great step outside of their comfort zone. Gardner's clean piano knocks out a girl-group bounce, and touring band member John Panos adds warm horn fills to stretch the songs tight structure out a bit. It cools nicely into a spacious chorus that may seem a bit schmalty ("You're a pot of gold sitting at the rainbow's edge") but it works with Panos bleating in the background. Elsewhere guitarist Kenji Shinegawa adds a cool surf rock riff to the otherwise shadowy "At Least I Have You."
These moments reflect the infectious energy of the band's earlier work. Team Boo was a great pop record because, yes, it had great songs, but it also had an undeniable, youthful zeal to it. Gardner and Hammel sounded charged as they tore through those songs. Here, as the production grows the tempo slows down, and that energy fades away. "Unless I'm Led" could be a nice cooldown after the album's opening, but instead there's too many airy keyboards floating around, the drums are too loud, and it all ends up feeling melodramatic, overworked. "Sway" tries to turn their pop sound into something new-wavy, but it never works itself past a mid-tempo buzz. "Change" tries to recapture the record's early power, and its decent try with its sweaty verses and soaring chorus, but there's just too much going on. The keys get crowded in between the vocals and the drums and everything ends up feeling cluttered.
Closer "Mistakes" rights the ship some, starting with spare parts and building to its crescendo. It earns its size, in other words, and too much of Mountaintops doesn't do that. The highlights here are certainly bigger productions, a push for something more than they've done on other records, but the immediacy of the song still shines though. Unfortunately, the rest of the record gets stuck behind its production. Mountaintops is a decent pop record, and will surely add a few fan favorites to the live set, but for a duo that did so much with just two instruments, they too often do less with more here.