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Snapshot Review: Maps & Atlases – Beware and Be Grateful [Barsuk]

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

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Album Review: Maps & Atlases – Perch Patchwork [Barsuk]

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.

Maps & Atlases – Solid Ground

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