Beware & Be Grateful by Maps & Atlases (Barsuk Records, 2012. 43 minutes)
Maps & Atlases is Shiraz Dada, David Davison, Erin Elders, and Chris Hainey. The Chicago-based band blends pop and technical musicianship into a unique flavor of indie rock.
In Praise of Songwriting
A good song requires an interesting rhythm and melodically rich instrumentation. Even more, a song requires a catchy melody, which soars over the well-crafted music. Perhaps most importantly, the song needs to say something. “Doo be doo be doo” lyrics might have a catchy melody but they do not provide a modicum of lasting depth. If, by chance, an artist succeeds in all three categories, an impeccable song is born. Good luck writing 9 more of them.
For Maps & Atlases, musicianship has never been a problem. The guitars have always conveyed febrile tones while the bass and drums lock in a frenzied fever. The band’s Achilles heel, in previous works, has surrounded vocal creativity.
Luckily, Maps & Atlases have taken measures to right the proverbial ship with Beware and Be Grateful. With music complimenting lyrics and melodies instead of overpowering them the new album feels mature; it grows in richness with each listen.
An Album of Introspection
To observe the band’s growth, look no further than the first single, “Remote and Dark Years”. The song expands upon motifs of introspection central to the album as a whole. The chords gently cascade creating a backdrop for the melody, while lead singer David Davison impressionistically reminisces on a failed relationship.
“I started thinking about myself like I always seem to do / I couldn’t stop myself from saying what might seem theatrical to you”
Davison’s repetition of the words “remote and dark years” carries dual meaning. First it feels like a plea for a relationship to replace time spent alone. Yet it also expresses the acceptance of a failed relationship as a remote and dark place.
Beware and Be Grateful expresses feelings on relationships with equal parts nostalgia and doubt. In “Old & Gray”, Davison croons,
“Somewhere there’s an orange on the table / Somewhere there’s a robe on the floor / And our writing on the wall is under three coats of paint in an apartment we don’t live in anymore”
Haven’t we all imagined the places where we once experienced joy? How have those physical spaces changed over the years?
Likewise, “Old Ash” looks back at similar agoraphobic neurosis that defined the relationship.
“We’re both afraid of public things / We’re both afraid of public things”
An Album of Virtuosity
Aside from these thematic jewels, Maps & Atlases maintains the musical virtuosity, which has likened them to bands such as Minus the Bear.
Of particular note, “Winter” explodes with jaw-dropping technical ability. While singing a gorgeous melody, Davison finger taps separate-but-simultaneous melodies (Check out the video below to see this technique in action) on his guitar much like Dave Knudson of Minus the Bear. The tune is a technically difficult but melodically rewarding listen and the perfect mix of matured production and Guitar-Center-show-off technicality.
Similarly, “Fever” illustrates the band’s virtuosity in its finest form while keeping the instruments subservient to the lyrical melody. A close listen reveals layers upon layers of musical complexity and yet the instruments never overpower the voice.
The Next Step
Writing a good song is unimaginably difficult, but Maps & Atlases are perfecting the songwriting process. Where the band relied on musical talent in previous albums, Beware & Be Grateful is, to date, the closest thing to a complete album. The next step is writing the perfect record. Good luck.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
What do you think? What makes a good song for you? Are you a fan of Maps & Atlases?
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