Album Review: Maps & Atlases “Beware and Be Grateful”

On April 17th, Chicago band Maps & Atlases released its second full-length album on indie label Barsuk Records, and in so many ways, this new album Beware and Be Grateful has been a long time coming. It’s hard to know where to begin, but I’ll start with the first thought that came to my head as I made my way through the album: ‘this is the album that I always knew this band could make.’ There is something about the songs, the music, the vocals and lyrics that is deeply personal in a way that this band has never been before. Where the previous release Perch Patchwork had a tone of experimentation and ‘let’s try this and see what happens’, Beware and Be Grateful is dripping of creativity and an air of liberation that was lacking from the last album.

It all starts with the opening track “Old & Gray”, a tune that most listeners will recognize from the early developments of Davison’s solo project, Cast Spells. The single-verse song was often a prelude to “Potted Plants” from the Brightworks and Baton EP. In a moment of reverse, on this album the song is tagged onto the end of  a mesmerizing vocal feature which includes looping effects and layers Davison’s voice as he is both harmonizing with and accompanying himself (along with minimal instrumentation that grows into a full band effort) while describing the artifacts a past relationship. There are memories of items shared and left behind, thoughts left unsaid, and the admission that the relationship has passed its prime. When the musical swells die down, listeners are left with only one note repeating on Davision’s guitar and the concluding verse:

When you are old and gray… I hope that someone holds you the way I would.”

It’s the perfect way to conclude that song, moving forward with hope for the better and leaving bitterness behind. At the same time it’s a great way to introduce this album, leaving everything that Maps & Atlases was behind, and entering into a new dimension.

Another batch of songs lifted from the waitlist are “Be Three Years Old” and “Vampires”. “Be Three Years Old” is a tune I remember from as early as 2007; it’s made its way to crowds via both Maps & Atlases and Davison’s solo performances which is why I feel this track will resonate well with longtime fans, it sounds the most similar to the band’s beginning sounds. There are complex guitar parts laying over each other, it’s almost like a guitar-orchestra, and a straightforward drum pattern that similar to the styles fans loved in tunes like “Artichokes” and “Daily News” from 2008’s You And Me And The Mountain. Unlike how the older tunes sounded a little rung out in Perch Patchwork, this tune is full of flavor and life, and sounds new all over again. Davison’s vocals are spot-on with rapid-fire lyrics delivered with well-rehearsed enunciation.

Equally, “Vampires” is a tune I’ve heard Davison perform solo, in an acoustic version. It’s rock n’ roll style track that is always fun to hear. The scratchy guitar tones and reverb in the drums gives the tune a garage-rock sound, and gives the song a road-trip-worthy quality. The quick end that occurs just as the song is building to its instrumental and vocal climax is genius.

Photo courtesy of Big Hassle Publicity

Now what is left is this “new stuff”. While I know many fans will be completely thrown off by this more electronic and pop sound that is front and center in this album, I ask them to be patient, give the album an unbiased shot, and remember what they love about this band, before writing it off. Yes, this album clearly carves out a new sound and direction for the band, but I really don’t think it’s a huge, unprecedented step away from the old styles. For the first time, I hear the band not necessarily changing its sound, but rather incorporating more influences into the existing style. There have been plenty of exclusive cover performances by the band over the past few years to clue you in; they aren’t just “math rockers”, clearly they are inspired by a lot of different sounds having covered tracks like “Summer Breeze” (Seals and Croft), “Drain You” (Nirvana), and “Ain’t Too Proud Beg” (The Temptations).

This is where “Fever” comes in. I have to admit that when I first heard this song a few months ago, I was skeptical. I just wasn’t ready. The electronic-esque tones and drums were overwhelming to me. Then I saw the band play an acoustic version of the track, and there was something about hearing it stripped down that just unlocked its magic for me.

It’s a milestone track for the band, incorporating a wide range of new styles and sounds. Davison has a much clearer and sort of soulful vocal on the track, and the instrumental complexities are very subtly woven together. It’s great that this song is so early in the album, forcing listeners to let go of their preconceived notions of what they ever thought this band could be, and just let the music take them to a new place.

The next track “Winter” has a very old-school Maps & Atlases flair about it. Complex guitar lines that play alongside the vocals take the forefront in a style very familiar to the band’s sound in 2007’s Tree, Swallows, Houses. From the get-go, I really liked this song, the references of salt on shoes and coats resonates well with anyone who has withstood a Midwestern winter.

“Remote & Dark Years” is the stand-out track of the album, in my opinion. Small hints of the song were clipped into the album promo video. What really takes the glory in this song are the lyrics. It reminds me of how talented a songwriter Davison is, in his ability to observe a minuscule, fleeting occurrence, and turn it into song. The verses read like a reflection on a diary entry:

I couldn’t help but notice that near the corner of your mouth
There was a piece of fruit escaping, it was trying to stay out.
I started thinking about myself, like I always seem to do
I couldn’t stop myself from saying what might seem theatrical to you, it’s just
I don’t want anymore, no more remote and dark years…

The song contains an honesty that seems so naked, anyone who has ever been in a fading relationship can easily relate to it. I felt like I was sitting at the table watching the scene unfold, and was immediately drawn into song’s emotional setting. It reminds me of hearing Davison discuss how he wrote the song “Pigeon” after merely observing a flock of pigeons on the street one day. The song came to him in minutes. Both verses in “Remote & Dark Years” seem to be similar occurrences, a moment locked in Davison’s mind waiting for the perfect opportunity to be placed into a song.

What’s left are four tracks that definitely seem a little more out of character for the band, but again, showcase the band members’ interest in other sounds and styles. These include “Silver Self”, “Bugs”, “Old Ash” and the closing song “Important”.

Silver Self“, like “Old & Gray” starts with a looped sample of Davison’s vocals, which he then sings the opening verses over. Then suddenly, some punchy, keyboard percussion kicks in, and we have our first Maps & Atlases club dance song. And you know what? It sounds like the band had a lot of fun playing around with the instrumentation and introducing new elements. Plus, there is a great guitar solo near the end. Has this band ever featured a guitar solo?? I’ll roll with it.

Bugs” is a track that I am still unsure about. It’s such a schizophrenic song, with a Latin beat, and fast-moving acoustic guitar lines, near-chaotic percussion, and a vocal-less instrumental ride to the finish. My mind wanders every time I listen to it.

My second favorite song would be “Old Ash“. This song was a pleasant surprise. The opening guitar line, introduced by a thunderous bass drum beat, sounds very reminiscent in tone to pansteel drum melodies. The whole song has an island feel to it,which is something listeners won’t recognize at all, yet the band pulls it off without a hitch. It sounds like the song started from a simple phrase, and rather that building into something epic, the band kept with the theme of simplicity, allowing the song to easily flow through the introduction of new instruments without ever becoming overwhelming. *Also, this song is an excellent excuse to bust out the Electric Slide in your living room.*

The album closer “Important“, is appropriately placed. It’s the only ballad-style slow jam on the album and much like “Perch Patchwork” did for the last album, leaves the listener in a state of curiosity for what is next. Featuring piano, keyboards, melodic guitar, and light percussion, “Important” is a very complacent track. The instruments mimic the vocals through most of the song, then take a dark turn into alternating low and high sounds leading into a single note finish.

The members of Maps & Atlases really put themselves whole-heartedly into this album, and it shows. The album is fresh, fun, and eclectic, weaving the classic Maps & Atlases style into electronic and indie rock styles in a way that keeps your head jumping across ideas as the styles do.  In this album, I hear my friends Dave Davison, Erin Elders, Chris Hainey, and Shiraz Dada, as the curious and talented musicians that they are, with their wide-ranging influences, and their ability to just let the music happen. And that’s not only touching the new songs. I was pleasantly surprised to see older tunes that the band has been playing live for years finally make their way to the recorded medium, transformed in ways I would never have imagined. This album opens up a multitude of possibilities for Maps & Atlases and proves once again, that this team is not to be pigeon-holed and will never run stale.

Purchase Beware and Be Grateful

More on Maps & Atlases:
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