Following their successful 2010 album Perch Patchwork, Maps & Atlases has returned with a new full-length album titled Beware and Be Grateful. While Perch Patchwork was a fantastic album (and one of my personal favorites from 2010), it had a somewhat homogenous feel. They obviously found a groove in their sound, but PP never really meandered away from that groove, staying in the comfort zone for the entire album. And that’s where Maps & Atlases have really matured in their work on Beware and Be Grateful. This album ventures away from the comfort zone often, finding novel ways to approach their trademark whimsy while incorporating totally new sounds. Indeed, this album is a step up in both diversity and engagability, further proving that these guys have an uncanny knack for songwriting, playful instrumentation, and creating bright soundscapes.
For the most part, this album is ripe with new textures & song styles. But that isn’t to say that the elements of the past are gone. The songs “Winter,” “Be Three Years Old,” and “Bugs” have that signature experimental folk attitude, with the lighthearted layers of guitar, creative percussion, and Dave Davison’s unique voice. In fact, these songs almost stand out amongst the bunch solely for the fact that they feel a little like a reminder of the past work, a handful of anchors that hold this album to their roots. But it’s not these songs that really make this album special, it’s those that break the Maps & Atlases mold to deliver new emotions.
Right off the bat with “Old & Grey,” it’s clear that they are trying something new. The vocals for the first few minutes are somewhat hushed, with beautiful backup harmonies and a slowly rising energy. Then, 4:30 into the song, Davison’s quirky voice comes to its full body — beginning to truly shine — and the music gains considerable energy. This pretty much turns their typical song structure completely on its head. And this energy carries through with a stellar transition that bridges seamlessly into “Fever,” a very upbeat track with a marked new wave energy that again feels like something fresh.
They take that concept of new wave energy to a higher level on “Remote & Dark Years,” a song that feels like it came straight out of the 80s. Seriously, this could very well be the track that plays during the credits roll in a John Hughes film. It’s really a remarkable turn for this band and jumps out as being a completely new direction of their sound. Then in the next song, “Silver Self,” not only did they experiment with song structure again, but they brought a really jovial, more rockin’ attitude to create what might be the best overall song on the album.
“Vampires” continues with the more rockin’ vibe and keeps the energy elevated thanks to the driving percussion of Chris Hainey. This song represents the most electrified attitude with strong & colorful guitar riffs that will perk your ears up in a wonderful way. Then there’s “Old Ash,” which takes the tempo back a notch while adding in a decidedly tropical flair. The guitar distortion that both Davison and Erin Elders use has this high-pitched tone that lends a weightlessness to the sound. And their guitar interplay is very subtle, yet fits together beautifully, especially during the floaty instrumental section at the end of the song. The album comes to a close on “Important,” another downtempo song, but this one takes the cake for being the most dramatic effort on the album. This time the guitars are fuzzed up, with a very slow rhythm and a magnificently nuanced bassline from Shiraz Dada. Instead of going out on a note of high energy, Maps & Atlases chose a song that fades off into the mist, inviting curiosity for what will come next. It’s one of those albums whose end seems to come too soon, leaving the listener wanting more while simultaneously being satisfied by the complex wonder of the piece as a whole.