Maps & Atlases are a multi-talented Chicago four piece, whose music falls in the indie-rock category on Wikipedia but in reality is anything but. On ‘Beware and Be Grateful,’ their second album, the band’s panoramic scope is realised more fully than on their slightly poppy debut, ‘Perch Patchwork.’
Although the album hops from genre to genre, with varying degrees of success, many elements leap out of the headphones; the solo and drum fills at the end of ‘Fever’, the short sweet hooks of ‘Vampires’ or the expansive tropical synths of ‘Silver Self’ are personal highlights, but no doubt you could find many more. By layering lots and lots of tracks on every song, the band creates an enveloping sound – best appreciated through headphones. These complex loops make for a synthetic sound, which at points only narrowly avoid sounding too clinical, but for the most part offer a rich tapestry style of song writing.
The experimentation of the album sets it apart from their wider known ‘weird-pop’ contemporaries like Vampire Weekend or Yeasayer, but strong song structure and classic sensibilities rein in their scattergun approach throughout. Take opener ‘Old and Gray’ for example; in many ways a rock song – two guitars, bass, drums, standard verse-chorus-verse structure – and yet its repetition and multi-tracked vocals twist it into something unique, before undergoing a wholesale transformation into a piano-led refrain. Much of the time, listening to the album, it seems that Maps & Atlases write normal songs with great hooks, then have a right laugh distorting them as much as possible.
However, a few tracks simmer but never quite burst into life. ‘Winter’, comfortably the dullest song is unfortunately placed at Track 3 and the confused funk of ‘Be Three Years Old’ sounds a mite too contrived. However, these lowlights certainly suffer more because of the arresting tracks found around them, and the lack of cohesion is pretty much the only downside to what is a very well-realised and ambitious collection, built expertly from the bottom up. Although by no means perfect, ‘Beware and Be Grateful’ warrants repeated listens and is as unique an album as you’ll hear this year, and for that it deserves a ten!
(Released through Barusk Records and available now – April 2012)
(10/10) ZAK PADMORE