Maps & Atlases
In a musical landscape pitted with pop stars and pigeonholes, Maps & Atlases defy easy categorization, choosing to walk their own incomparable path. Beware and Be Grateful builds upon the Chicago-based band’s acclaimed Barsuk Records debut, Perch Patchwork, melding their trademark experimentalism with a more direct – though no less beguiling – songcraft. The new album abounds with invention, spanning hymnal harmonies, percolating rhythms, even, in the case of centerpiece track “Silver Self,” a full-on guitar solo. Songs like “Remote and Dark Years” and “Winter” are gloriously liquid and lyrical, channeling M&A’s maximalist creativity into a truly inviting brand of boundary-busting, asymmetrical pop.
“We wanted there to be more ins,” says guitarist/vocalist Dave Davison. “We wanted it to be really engaging. We wanted it to be fun, in addition to being different.”
Guitarist Erin Elders adds, “we’ve always been interested in writing songs that people can walk away from with some sort of emotional connection, while still trying to explore our own musical obsessions and the weird ideas we want to pursue.”
Since their formation in 2004, Maps & Atlases – that is, Davison, Elders, bassist Shiraz Dada, and drummer Chris Hainey – have captured the indie imagination with polyrhythmic beats, elaborate melodies, and post-rock ingenuity. Arriving on the heels of two highly rated EPs, 2010’s Perch Patchwork proved both a popular and artistic breakthrough, earning the devotion of an increasingly fervent fanbase as well as reams of critical applause. “Maps & Atlases make technical virtuosity fun,” declared Filter, while American Songwriter praised the album as a “beautifully oddball symphony…equal parts lo-fi and hi-tech.”
M&A spent much of 2010 and ’11 on the road, honing their kinetic time signatures and inventive energy both as headliners and alongside such artists as RX Bandits, CircaSurvive, Cults, and Portugal. The Man. Demos were recorded between tours with Perch Patchwork producer Jason Cupp (Good Old War, Nurses), paving the way for sessions at Omaha’s ARC Studios – the band’s first time working in a conventional recording facility, having previously recorded largely in home studios and other “places where you have unlimited time, without having to pay for it,” according to Davison.
In preparation, Maps & Atlases united to explore arrangement ideas and tweak material at Davison’s parents’ house in suburban Lake County, Indiana. Much of their work on arrangements was conducted on a number of what Davison describes as “weird little battery-powered keyboards” that he and Cupp had purchased at a Chicago farmer’s market. The addition of keyboards into Maps & Atlases’ creative arsenal served as a seismic aesthetic shift for a band that had always shied away from even the simplest guitar pedals.
“When we first started as a band, we were a lot more adamant about the music being this very organic thing,” Elders says. “But slowly we’ve grown to want to experiment with
texture, and keyboards were a great way to do that. They also helped guide the songs, they kept things fresh. It’s good to step out of your comfort zone and try new things.”
Though most of the keyboards’ “strange sounds” were replaced by guitars on the final recording, they unlocked a new musical mindset in Maps & Atlases, opening the band to alternatives to their customarily naturalistic approach. At ARC, they toyed with fresh textural elements, recording the sound of light bulbs being smashed or of a microphone placed in a box and then rolled down a flight of stairs.
“We threw down as many ideas as we possibly could,” Elders says, “as fast as we could.”
The band broke the recording sessions into weeklong chunks, taking time away to evaluate their work periodically. Elders describes the band’s nurturing approach towards the material as “a long layering/unlayering process. By doing it in installments, we were able to let the songs unfold.”
The recordings included pieces that been fermenting throughout M&A’s lifetime, with songs like “Old Ash” and the extraordinary “Remote And Dark Years” now utterly transformed by the band’s forward momentum and Davison’s increasingly potent songwriting skills.
Whereas prior songs featured a somewhat fragmented, refracted lyricism, Davison has begun tackling the big existential questions in more forthright fashion.
“It’s just thinking about meaning,” he says, “a sort of back-and-forth between ideas and emotion versus just existing in the world.”
That core metaphysical to-and-fro is manifested by the album’s widescreen spatial dynamics, what Elders describes as “an open-endedness.” Free to let their ideas run wild, Maps & Atlases truly let fly: Beware and Be Grateful is a breathtaking panopticon of incantatory choral vocals, seesawing grooves, and of course, their inimitable six string complexity, all of which are pushed farther that the band had ever anticipated.
“There are things on this album that I never thought it would be possible for us to do when we first started,” Davison says, adding wryly, “For one thing, my 20-year- old self would not have been super-pumped-up about me playing a guitar solo on anything.”
With its blend of avant garde audacity and pop craftsmanship, Beware and Be Grateful stands firmly in the great art rock tradition, a model synthesis of novelty and tradition, of listen ability and invention. Maps & Atlases have crafted a collection of resplendently human music, its intricate dynamics wholly matched by ornate wells of deep emotion.
“We’re all quietly excited,” Elders says. make and have been striving to make.
“For us, this is the record we’ve always wanted to We’re very proud of it.”
Shiraz Dada, bass * Dave Davison, guitar/vocals * Erin Elders, guitar * Chris Hainey, drums
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