The boys in Maps & Atlases may officially call Chicago home, but they consider themselves more of a regionally located band rather than a city specific one. The four of them met in Chicago while attending art school, but hail from such far-off places as Texas, Pennsylvania and Hawaii. School is over for all of them, but they’re continuing their musical education by sticking together as a band. To date they’ve released two EPs in 2007 and 2008 via Sargent House, and are now signed to Barsuk just in time for the release of their debut full length, “Perch Patchwork”.
The early Maps & Atlases material focused largely on guitar work, specifically in playing a form of math rock. They seemed to be the heirs apparent to Minus the Bear’s speedy guitar-picking sound matched with dynamite hooks, but there comes a time when every band needs to grow, and in the past couple years, Maps & Atlases have done just that. “Perch Patchwork” sees the band moving away from that sound and more towards a layered and complex indie pop that’s easy on the ears but far from conventional. While a band with such an instrumentally sound background could very well have used their first album to show off their chops, Maps & Atlases instead chose to focus on songcraft in general, creating strong and vivid overall structures that intrigue as much as they delight. Yes. there’s still a little bit of intricate guitar, particularly on the second half of the record, but there’s also so much else to focus on. Percussion is one of the many things to pay close attention to on “Perch Patchwork”, and there’s a handful of moments where the beats go from simply keeping background rhythm to booming tribal punches. “The Charm” is a great example of that, along with being a great showcase for Dave Davison’s unique singing voice. He’s got an almost frog-like warble that could hypothetically be annoying for some, but carries a tune well and proves as much on the occasions when melody goes away and he’s left to his own devices. The stark reality that Maps & Atlases do bring to the table however is that while each band member might have their own individual moments to shine, this is at its core a wholly collaborative effort. The majority of the time, and this may be in part thanks to the production work, all the instruments and pieces of the musical puzzle hold equal footing, so that one element isn’t taking precedence and you get enraptured by the song itself and not just a singluar piece of it. That’s one of the biggest things that helps this record to distinguish itself from the bands with a similar sound.
While folk or layered indie pop might be the easy way to place “Perch Patchwork” into a category, it’s clear that Maps & Atlases also like the idea of diversity in their sound. This is why they’ve taken only small bits from their earlier EPs and pieced them in amongst bigger drums and violins and a host of other elements. They’re experimenting outside of their comfort zone just a little bit and it’s refreshing, while never getting to the point where there’s too much diversity to make for a cohesive record. It’s like the elemental differences between bands like Yeasayer, Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective – Maps & Atlases have elements of each in their music, and you come to realize that at their core there’s not an ocean of separation between them. But where “Perch Patchwork” fails to deliver is on originality and hooks. This is far more lighthearted and easily digestible music than what many critically acclaimed bands have been releasing recently, and in some senses Maps & Atlases are playing it safe. They take chances, but not nearly enough to make a big name for themselves. Additionally, while avoiding risk, they fail to strike hard by leaving their lightest and most predictable songs without strong hooks. A highly memorable chorus would have taken away the sting of relative blandness a couple of the tracks exude. Otherwise though, “Perch Patchwork” is a relative delight, and serving as strong evidence that Maps & Atlases will be a band to keep a close eye on for years to come. They seem to have all the right parts towards becoming indie superstars, they just need to find the right combination of things to make that happen. As time continues to give us wisdom, hopefully this band takes it in stride and makes another significantly strong leap on their sophmore effort.