Maps & Atlases & One-SheetsFeatured, Music — By Keaton Lamle on May 24, 2012 at 12:00 pm
If we are to believe a press release1 from Big Hassle Media, then Chicago-based, Barsuk Records recording artists Maps & Atlases’ second full length record Beware and Be Grateful is as groundbreaking as Revolver, as relatable as Pinkerton, and as jam-packed with virtuosity as anything Hendrix ever produced. The press release opens with a Thoreauean diatribe that paints a musical wasteland of grotesque, nightmarish pop stars painting by the numbers while Maps & Atlases march down their own more original path, a lone beacon of sanity in a convoluted, pornographic scene. This is a little more dramatic than the wording actually used in the press release2, which wording includes the phrase “incomparable” to describe the band’s “experimentalism”. And that is a semi-fitting description of the band’s sound. In fact, repeated attempts to place Maps & Atlases’ new direction within a sonically familiar frame of reference for readers has rendered me with only the following sentence: Maps & Atlases (at times) sound sort of like Cee-Lo Green fronting The Mars Volta. And even that description is intermittently applicable, at best.
In the release, we are told that the new album “abounds with invention, spanning hymnal harmonies3, percolating rhythms, even… a full-on guitar solo” and most of this is true, although only in indie rock would anyone ever make a big deal about the appearance of a guitar solo4. This is rock music, after all. Sort of. Anyway, as advertised, this band can certainly be considered purveyors of “gloriously liquid and lyrical… asymmetrical pop”, in which some of the sparkliest sounds5 you have ever heard weave odd rhythmic meters into strangely conventional choruses. The “liquid” modifier in the description of their sound probably refers to the ethereal and vaguely dreamlike quality of most of the tunes. The use of “lyrical” is pretty self-explanatory: This album is full of gems like, “Our writing on the wall is under three coats of paint in an apartment we don’t live in anymore.”6 The overall effect of this juxtaposition (liquid vs. lyrical) is not displeasing, although the music can be a little grating if you are on the way home from any sort of high-stress job, or just aren’t the biggest fan of ridiculous voices or polyrhythms.
That said, Maps & Atlases does an admirable job of creating what appear to be actual songs — coherent pieces of music that sound like four musicians working together to achieve a common goal, as opposed to falling into the trap that most prog-y bands usually have to claw their way out of, of sounding like four people soloing at roughly the same tempo.In fact, several tunes (“Fever”, “Winter”) bounce along at a nice, straightforward clip augmented by flutes and driven by dancily synthetic drum sounds that just sizzle with long 1980s reverb7. “Vampires” sounds a little like somebody sampled a Tom Petty b-side, added their own vocals, and rode the result into space. Which makes for an enjoyable listen about every other time you hear the song. Other musical free-associations that come to mind during the average playback of Beware and Be Grateful include Vampire Weekend8, The Shins9, and (strangely) Maroon 510.
Big Hassle Media calls this concoction “a breathtaking panopticon11 of incantatory choral vocals, seesawing grooves, and… inimitable six string complexity” that “stands firmly in the great art rock tradition, a model synthesis of novelty and tradition12, of listenability and invention… a collection of resplendently human music, its intricate dynamics wholly matched by ornate wells of deep emotion.” I dunno about all that, but I feel like Maps & Atlases probably set out to create a record that packs some sort of emotional punch, while still managing to remain musically interesting, expressive of their technical mastery. And I’d say they succeeded at one or the other for the duration of Beware and Be Grateful and at both simultaneously for about 70% of the record.
1. The thing to keep in mind when reading a press release is that they are hard to write. The next time you hear a talk radio host making fun of one or see one quoted in any context that reveals the release’s inherent ridiculousness, keep this in mind: The person that wrote that thing has to manufacture excitement about _________ regardless of __________’s merit and in spite of any personal misgivings about the aesthetic direction of ____________. This is no easy task. What makes the press release an often-ridiculous medium is its tendency to contain kernels of truth that have been inflated to the point that what is being described bears little relation to the artifact in question. A record is not just a record, it is far and away the biggest event of the year, and not dissimilar to the second coming of Christ, etc… Which can be pretty funny.
3. These often sound a lot like the “Can we get much higherrrrr?” vocals that begin Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But it’s not like I actually listen to that album or anything.
4. Guitarist Dave Davison (great name) says of this, “My 20-year-old self would not have been super-pumped-up about me playing a guitar solo on anything.” I am willing to bet that his 20-year-old self probably wasn’t a whole mess of fun.
5. The origin of which are sometimes nearly impossible to figure out: Guitar or synth?
6. This bit looks considerably less profound in writing.
7. This probably doesn’t seem like a compliment, but a few of these more straightforward throwback tunes would have been absolutely at home on the Napoleon Dynamite soundtrack.
8. Who should maybe get some royalties for writing the rhythm section parts on “Silver Self”.
9. Although I can’t exactly give an explanation as to why. I know it has something to do with the guitar tones.
10. You can’t have a saliva-saturated tenor fronting your band without getting Adam Levine comparisons.
11. I think it is fairly clear that this release was written by the lovechild of William Faulkner and David Foster Wallace.
12. A word that I would NEVER have used in describing this album, whereas BHM somehow managed to use it twice in eight words.