Chicago’s own Maps & Atlases haven’t gotten to the point of popularity they’re at today by pandering. They’re daring, carve-their-own-path sorts of musicians, willing to take their songs in unexpected directions while still maintaining a modicum of structure and thematics. That’s a big part of what made their two EPs Tree, Swallows, Houses and You and Me and the Mountain such unique and compelling listens. They’re also what earned the band a place underneath the intricate “math rock” umbrella. Consider that early material falling somewhere between Minus the Bear, Battles and Don Caballero. Their 2010 debut full length Perch Patchwork still held steadfast to many of those elements (particularly on the second half of the record), but expanded the band’s reach by becoming much more pop-centric. They were able to take their oddities and intricate instrumentation and subdue them just enough to make them more attractive to a wider audience. At the same time they played with tempos and percussion to explore more Afro-pop and freak folk ideas that had been brewing for awhile. The end product was still good, just a little uneven. For their sophmore effort Beware and Be Grateful, the band has yet again ironed out the creases in their sound to streamline it just a bit more. The production is squeaky clean, and Dave Davison’s warming warble sits front and center. Opening track “Old and Gray” pulsates with harmonized vocal loops that wouldn’t sound too out of place on an Animal Collective record, while the the electric guitar noodling bears an eerie resemblance to something Dirty Projectors might churn out. Yet when combined and taken as a whole, the track feels like it has more in common with TV on the Radio than either of those two bands. That blends seamlessly into the sprightly “Fever,” a very fun and catchy pop song that is probably one of the most straightforward tracks Maps & Atlases have ever written. Fans of the band’s older material will find solace in “Winter” and “Bugs”, both of which have heavy math rock leanings. They also push further into the territory of Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend with tracks like “Be Three Years Old” and “Old Ash”. And with soft rock reaching popularity again, a song like “Remote and Dark Years” has Peter Gabriel’s fingerprints all over it. Somehow the record comes together quite well, in spite of any apparent genre jumping that may occur. Where Beware and Be Grateful falters is in its length. Four out of the album’s ten songs breach the 5 minute mark, and there’d be nothing wrong with that if they could justify the length. Most of it is the result of sustained melody, but given how pop-flavored these songs are, 3.5 minutes is a good time to aim for. At least a couple of these songs could be made better simply by chopping a minute off the runtime. Additionally, you can tell the band worked really hard on this album. Kudos to them for that, however with songs like these you want the presentation to come off as effortless. The more aware you are of the sweat that went into making this record, the less fun and memorable it becomes. You can marvel at the technical precision, but that’s engaging your head and not your heart. Maps & Atlases are certainly on the right path with Beware and Be Grateful, they just need to learn that sometimes you need to put the directions down and let your emotions take the wheel.

Maps & Atlases – Winter

Buy Beware and Be Grateful from Amazon