Chicago’s Maps & Atlases have been around the music scene for a few years now, releasing a string of EPs before their angular early years coalesced into “Perch Patchwork”, their well-received 2010 debut LP. If that debut edged the band closer to pop territory than their early EPs, then with their newly released second album “Beware and Be Grateful” their frothing, thrilling mix of styles and melodies has reached an addictive melt-in-the-mouth eclecticism that might just propel the windy city quartet to wider acclaim. Here is a band with both the ability to play technically inventive genre-fusing guitar music, but also with the ear to deliver pop hooks galore, while never, ever following the path of least resistance. In David Davison, the band have not only a dead ringer for Jesus, but a vocalist of such otherwordly brilliance that world domination would be assured if the band wanted to settle merely for the obvious. Happily for us, they want to reach for much more.
Somewhere in the band’s genetic balance, there is a folk heredity. Something in the group’s vocals belongs around a campfire, but whether that campfire belongs in the Serengeti or on the American plain is only one of the questions posed by the band’s arresting style. Indeed, this album is not folk. It starts intimate and beautiful, but ranges out across expansive, anthemic territory via kinetic (poly)math-rock, all the while remaining only one (afro)beat from head-rushing, singalong euphoria.
The mixture of intimate and expansive is never less than eminently listenable. Many of these new songs encapsulate both dynamics at once, and that the band pull off the mix without ever jarring the listener’s sensibilities is testament to their chops. Opening track “Old and Gray” is the perfect auditory hors d’ouevre. The quietly dense vocals and melody give way eventually to a stunning denouement as the music strips back to Davison’s beautiful vocal: “When you are old and grey, I hope that someone holds you the way I would…”. That song segues into “Fever”, a foot stomping modern classic with a pulsing beat and insistent chorus that has all the attributes to make itself a summer-long companion. Within two songs, the band has set a standard which is adhered to unrelentingly throughout. Dissecting the songs almost spoils the fun, but between the riffing brilliance of “Vampires” and the startlingly beautiful closing ballad “Important” there lie treasures aplenty, from the afrocentric brilliance of “Bugs” and “Old Ash” to the dancefloor-teasing jagged guitars of “Winter”. At one end of their spectrum, Maps & Atlases still have the pop-leaning rhythms and melodies to rival Vampire Weekend’s accessibility, but at the other end of their range, they have a technicality which informs the record with moments of leftfield brilliance and surprise. It’s those moments of smartly constructed musical ambush that make the album such a delight – and such sheer fun to listen to.
“Beware and Be Grateful“ is out now on Fatcat records.