Maps & Atlases took a giant leap toward the mainstream with Perch Patchwork, their excellent full-length debut. The band’s early EPs were thick with sinewy, mathematical grooves that were also excellent, just harder to listen to for more than an EP’s worth of time. But such grooves were thinned out significantly to make room for bigger hooks, deeper emotions, and poppier structures on Patchwork. For their second LP, Beware And Be Grateful, Maps & Atlases take a small step closer to the mainstream with one foot as the other foot steps back toward their dense, intricate roots. It’s pleasing to hear the band widen their stance, and only in one spot does the delicate balance start to wobble.
As always, Dave Davison leads with his strangled, soulful voice; guitarist Erin Elders fires off riffs that show off his fleet fingers as well as his sharp hook-sense; and bassist Shiraz Dada & drummer Chris Hainey remain one of the best rhythm sections in America. The textures on Beware are cleaner and sleeker than usual, but the structures are looser and jammier again. The meat of the album, as with Patchwork, sounds like lean-muscled, Cat Stevens-fronted Tropicália (“Winter,” “Silver Self,” “Be Three Years Old,” “Bugs,” “Old Ash”). The vibe may be familiar, though there’s plenty of dazzling novelty scattered in there, like the deliciously squiggly riffs of “Winter,” the hyper-doodle solo sprawling across the second half of “Silver Self,” and Davison’s throat-scratching passion in “Old Ash.”
Most of my favorite tracks happen to be the ones where the band steps further out of their comfort zone. Opener “Old & Gray” is a real bewitcher. Davison gazes wistfully at a relationship that came oh so close to beating the odds (“The writing on the wall is under three coats of paint/ in an apartment we don’t live in anymore“) as the tune drifts idly in a gently throbbing stream of multi-multi-tracked Kid A machine-ghosts. Despite the apparent meandering, there’s no shortage of hooks pulling us toward the highly cathartic climax where Davison exorcises his pain through gratuitous melisma. “Old & Gray” then slides sexily into “Fever,” a slab of arena-friendly pop that hang-glides on hope and chillwaves (“When the fever passes/ and we’re all back in our nests/ we’ll be extravagant hosts instead of imposing guests“).
Interestingly enough, Beware And Be Grateful‘s best song is “Vampires,” perhaps the simplest song the band’s ever recorded. Armed with a joyriding one-TWO!-three-FOUR! beat, the album’s best hooks, and a spirit of joyful defiance (“I don’t know if the vampires in this town/ just expect us to lay down and roll over…no, we won’t roll over!“), “Vampires” is a lock to make my Best Of 2012 mixtape. The only flop on Beware is “Remote And Dark Years,” which, for my taste, is too fluffy with Bon Iver‘s soft-rock twinkle-haze- albeit with more righteous drum fills.
Something about Beware And Be Grateful makes me think someone may have suffered a near-death experience before the album’s production. Maybe it’s all those mortality-flavored song titles. Or maybe it’s the cover, black and yellow like a warning sign, a tombstone etched with warm yet ominous advice. And just like someone who’s come back from the edge of death, Maps & Atlases sound wiser, more rejuvenated, and eager to greet life’s next chapter.