Maps & Atlases: Beware And Be Grateful Review

Not many bands go from writing intricate and rhythmically challenging records to aping bands like Don Caballero and Kings Of Leon everything and swathing everything in ethereal backing harmonies.

Over the course of their fourth album Maps & Atlases show their reason for doing this, but whether these have enough merit is another question.

Having jettisoned the accessible math-rock of Trees, Swallows, Houses and the still sublime You And Me And The Mountain EP in favour of folksy pop-rock on their most recent record Perch Patchwork, this Chicago four-piece sound a little unfocused on Beware And Be Grateful.

Unsure of themselves and either unwilling or unable to fully surrender to their latent stadium rock aspirations, Maps & Atlases deviate even further from what made their early material so refreshing.

To sum-up an album in one word, to reduce the creative input/outpouring of others to a single soundbite often seems harsh and unnecessary. In the case of Beware And Be Grateful, however, with its straining and its affectations, the word that most often springs to mind during the course of the record is workmanlike.

Seemingly striving for the acid-fried pastoralism of Akron / Family or Sunburned Hand Of The Man via the sunshine rock of classic Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Maps & Atlases often sound like they’re having to work at their music as opposed to possessing that inherent sense of the country these aforementioned groups displayed.

Despite the odd faux-epic track like Silver Self, it’s inoffensive, rarely outstays and frequently rather pleasant; in fact, Be Three Years Old is very nearly a match for anything from their more hallowed past.

But, and here’s the rub, Maps & Atlases now sound like a band uncomfortable with the direction they’ve chosen and ultimately themselves. And that’s the not terrible factor coming into play.

The most damning thing about Beware And Be Grateful is thus; it isn’t a terrible record.

These are songs that desperately want to be great and desperately want to be loved, made by musicians who are frantically striving for these two things. But the shrill staccato guitar lines, off-kilter melodies and reedy warble of Dave Davison which used to charm us so now seem to grate.

It disappoints most because you can hear the potential for this album to have been great rattling around on there, only this appears to have been traded in for an unconvincing attempt at finding commercial solace.

There’s no reason why a group or artist should plough the same musical furrow in a career long stasis. As listeners, reviewers and fans, we must acknowledge the need for bands to evolve and move on.

This acknowledgement does not extend to a tacit congratulation of those who do change simply for the sake of it, and in the case of Maps & Atlases there progress has only served to make them weaker.

Josh Baines

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April 2012
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