Music Reviews
Beware and Be Grateful

Maps and Atlases Beware and Be Grateful

(Barsuk Records) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Seventeen years ago, Alanis Morissette taught me (and the rest of the developed world) what irony is. It’s a black fly in white wine. It’s not having a knife when the world is trying to spoon you. And
seventeen years later, it’s hearing a band called Maps & Atlases underachieve due to a pronounced lack of direction and destination.

In the indie realm, influential and innovative acts use technical proficiency to develop a unique aesthetic: a particular sound or mood that is both definable and enjoyable (to certain tastes, at least). The xx are a prime example, having exploded onto the London scene using minimal amounts of melody and timbre to create an atmosphere far denser than the weight of its individual elements.

Beware and Be Grateful certainly has plenty of elements…perhaps even too many. Like Perch Patchwork before it, arrangements are dense and riddled with deceptively tricky riffs that would leave sheet music transcriptionists combing the Help Wanted ads. The quartet met while in art school, so snazzy rhythms and fingerboard finesse aren’t altogether unexpected. It all seems cool enough, in a “whoa, you totally killed that run of 128th notes, bro!” sort of way, until you question why they conceived it in the first place. Did its inclusion enhance or contribute to the overall mood? Did it help convey the artist’s emotional intent? Too often the answer is unclear or entirely too simple: “Well, I guess it didn’t really.”

The good and promising news is that Maps and Atlases have their compass pointed in the right direction. Of all releases, their latest is the most cohesive, lucid, and interpretable. Fever would be a great blueprint for future efforts. The snappy drums and dancing arpeggios meld nicely with Dave Davison’s vocal melody to create a vibrant texture. It’s exhilarating, it’s triumphant, it’s celebratory and, best of all, it’s effectively communicated to the listener. Later in the set, Old Ash uses clever dichotomy in verse/chorus instrumentation to achieve the same feat. All the tension and anxiety built through the opening guitar line and howling vocal melody is suddenly released in an abrupt transition to the soothing, mellower chorus.

The fabulous thing about Maps and Atlases is that they have the technical tools to craft whichever aesthetic they choose. The frustrating thing is that, too often, they don’t choose one. Don’t be put off though - Beware and Be Grateful is still worth a listen (or two or three) if only to familiarize yourself with the band’s compositional style. It’s truly exceptional when paired with emotional panache, and there’s reason to suspect that the two may meet more frequently on future releases.