Album Review: Maps & Atlases “Perch Patchwork”

For Maps & Atlases fans, it’s time to rejoice!  After 6+ years, the band has FINALLY got it together and released a full-length album.  With twelve tracks erupting with creativity, compelling lyrics/vocals, and complex musicality, Perch Patchwork successfully delivers a sound that you just can never get enough of.  As the band’s debut on indie label Barsuk Records (Ra Ra Riot, David Bazan, Death Cab for Cutie), Perch Patchwork reveals a band that has taken the time to explore and develop its ever-changing sound.

Perch Patchwork is a masterpiece in a sense for Maps & Atlases, as it perfectly captures both the controlled melodic pop style of You and Me and the Mountain (2008, Sargent House) and the young, chaotic, experimental sound of Tree, Swallows, Houses (2006). The band continues to use its signature style which includes layered complex guitar melodies, obscure changes in time signature, additional percussion instrumentation, and singer Dave Davison’s subtle yet intriguingly powerful voice.

There are a lot of things I love about this album, but the first to discuss are the semi-instrumental themes that work their way through the album. This three-song series (titled “Will”, “Is”, and “Was”) breaks up the album into three parts, the last song leading into the closing and title track “Perch Patchwork”. It reminds me of the recurring theme which occurs in The Impossible Shapes’ Tum (2006, Secretly Canadian), only instead of reworking the same theme in different styles as the Shapes do, Maps & Atlases take the opportunity to stretch a continuous theme throughout the album.

Maps & Atlases: Dave Davison (vocals, guitar), Shiraz Dada (bass), Erin Elders (guitar), Chris Hainey (drums, percussion)

The intro track “Will” features Davison’s vocals mimicking the climbing guitar melody amongst pulsing percussion and supporting guitar parts. As the track rounds its finish, instead of ending, it flows right into second track of the album “The Charm” which will be a fast favorite of any listener. As the computerized instrumental tracks pulse to a fast but constant time, Davison’s steady voice (with a very matter-of-fact tone) leads you into curiosity: “I don’t think that there’s a sound that I hate more, than the sound of your voice… when you say that you don’t love my anymore”. As he repeats the verse and continues onto the next, the song builds until it is in a full eruption of drumline-esque percussion. The vocals on this track are quite impressive; you get sense of the variance of Davison’s vocal range as he smoothly glides through high and low ranges throughout the verses. At a little over three minutes the track comes barreling to full blast but is finished just as quickly as it starts and fluidly flows into the next track.

That’s the next thing I enjoy about this album. The songs just flow into one another, some sharing instrumental outros/intros, and some washing in like a morning tide. It’s a great way to make the album feel continuous, but can also make is seem like it goes by a bit to fast. If you tune out for even a moment you suddenly realize you are already into “Israeli Caves”.

However, it is still difficult to miss the early album gems “Living Decorations” and “Solid Ground” before hitting the next instrumental break in “Is”. A clock-like beat sneaks out of the end of “The Charm” to lead listeners straight into “Living Decorations“, another one of my favorite tracks on the album. I’m not exactly sure what it is about this song that steals my attention. The handclaps, driving beat, subtle but pulsating keys, or the rock-like rhythm and tone in the bass and guitar are all noticeable points that bring the track together. The vocal harmonies and reverb also make it an enjoyable track that just flows by with certain power.

The bass and drum heavy “Solid Ground” is simply a great track. With a somewhat dark tone but lively structure it’s impossible to get by this song without bopping your head and singing the chorus out loud. The instrumental break “Is” appropriately follows “Solid Ground” and very much has a Tum-esque quality to it (Note the reference to this album by The Impossible Shapes earlier). “Israeli Caves” follows this track in an unexpected but befitting fashion.

While I enjoy “Israeli Caves” and “Banished Be Cavalier”, whenever I hear them they feel old to me, since they were released so far prior to the album’s release. Even still, they are great tracks to stick in the middle, because they are familiar, yet different. The instrumentation is much more varied than in the original mixes.  “Israeli Caves” has a beachy feel rich with brass and saxophone parts and island style percussion sounds.   Banished Be Cavalier” features a beautiful string arrangement that comes into full effect near 1:43. This portion affectively transitions the song from beginning to coda by changing and slowing the song’s tone and allowing the listener to focus on the lyrics as the strings fade out into an a cappella overdubbed chorus. (Other than that the chorus of voices tend to get a tad tired throughout the songs duration).

Carrying The Wet Wood” is an intriguing track in that it uses a variety of instruments, tones, and sounds, spiraling melodies, and repetitive style. This track never gets boring despite its repetitive nature due to sudden stops and shifts in the musical patterns and time signature. It’s an interesting track that deserves a close listen.

Pigeon” is a track that the band released and has been playing live for nearly a year, however I still really love it. Maybe it’s the cute, spiraling guitar melody which starts and carries on throughout the song’s duration, the musical pauses in the verses, or it could be the sing along nature of the track. Either way, it’s a fun jam with an island feel.

The 1970s feel and driving tone of “If This Is” always makes me envision a packed van heading down the highway, crossing a bridge and leaving the city. Perhaps it’s the lyric “If this is the only way that I could let you know /that I’m tired of not thinking about anyone but myself.”  It just seems like a ‘getaway’ track. Also, the straight rhythm of the drums keeps the track from standing still. In fact, it’s when the drums cut out and the paired melody in the guitar and vocals take centerstage that the song changes into a ballad-like outcry.

Was” is the last instrumental transition track of the album and very appropriately follows the race of “If This Is”. It’s a sleepy track that has an end-of-the-day worn out tone to it. Featuring guitars, bass, toy piano, and a hint of Davison’s voice following the melody, it calms the listener down and shifts focus toward the band’s ability to bring together musical themes without the use of lyrics.

“Was” stretches right into the ending ballad and title track “Perch Patchwork“, which is possibly one of the most beautiful tracks I have ever heard from the band. Featuring wonderful orchestral string arrangements, subtle percussion and guitars, and a stunning 6/8 time signature, this track is not to be brushed off. It’s unlike any song I’ve ever heard from the band, but is filled with such beautiful musical swells and imagery that it deserves appreciation and a careful listen. My favorite part has to be the ending which always reminds me of Bon Iver’s “The Wolves, Act I and II” (For Emma Forever Ago, 2008, Jagjaguwar). It’s a canon of overdubbed lyrics, melodies, and harmonies, that flow into an a cappella medley of voices that are suddenly singing and shouting among one another. It’s absolutely captivating and lasts just long enough for you to marvel at it before fading into the final verse “Take what we can get”. It’s the perfect track to finish the album and leave listeners baffled at which direction the band’s next release will take.

Overall, this album was long-awaited and does not fail to deliver a seasoned and polished Maps & Atlases. It is clear the band used their time wisely to nail down their sound and style, and then use that framework to get creative and reinvent themselves. It is a true testament to their wide range of influence, style, and creativity. Perch Patchwork reveals a band that is not to be confined to one genre or restricted to a defining style. I give the band members high praise in their ability to keep their sound fresh and truly stretch their limits as musicians and songwriters. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the next album.

More on Maps & Atlases:
Website
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Barsuk Records
MySpace
Twitter
Last.fm
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