Maps & Atlases – Beware and Be Grateful

written by: April 17, 2012
Release Date: April 17, 2012


There are a million things one could say about Maps & Atlases’ newest album. I started this review a hundred times over, with pretentious rants about poetry and music, what it means to be an artist and the way that we as consumers dissect and ingest art, but I think that, in the spirit of the band, this review should be kept simple and painfully real.

Maps & Atlases is a band that has always had two fantastic things going for it: they know how to take the often awkward and densely layered guitars of math-rock and make them fun and accessible, and they know how to take plainspoken lyrics and make them meaningful, touching and powerful. They have a flair for the dramatic and the rare talent to take that emotion and make it understated and realistic instead of overblown and cartoonish. From their fantastic mathy-er EPs Tree, Swallows, Houses, and You and Me and the Mountain to their somewhat more subdued and accessible debut full length Perch Patchwork, Maps & Atlases have produced consistently solid music, a rare sound that is both heavily introspective yet adventurous and fun.

They’ve just now released a second full album and hearts are breaking: Maps & Atlases are a fantastic band that produced a boring record.

Where Perch Patchwork and their two big EPs were twitchy with excitement, Beware and Be Grateful lingers far too long. These new songs lack that dangerous edge that intrigued listeners and really pulled them in. Which is too bad, because the band is clearly still capable of producing interesting music, and there are glimpses of their former brilliance throughout the album (like the dramatic crash of instruments that accompany the climactic ending of album intro “Old & Gray”) but nothing really pans out as well as it should.

It hurts to hear the more generic songs, especially because there are still a few good moments sprinkled throughout Beware; beyond the aforementioned “Old & Gray,” there’s also the interesting combo of rubbery, bending synths and violent scat singing on “Silver Self,” or the evocative lyrics of “Old Ash.” But for each of these innovations, there are tracks like album closer “Important,” that drag aimlessly, committed to one monopolizing sound, instead of the sporadic and adventurous spirit the band’s earlier recordings captured so fantastically.

While the new, more laid-back style works for a few songs, like “Fever” or “Winter,” the album by and large needs that edge the band’s earlier works had. Now, instead of exploring new sounds or dropping instruments dramatically or, really, changing things up at all, the songs just sort of carry on until they end, and that’s a bit of a disappointment.

The most painful thing about Beware and Be Grateful, though, is that the poignant lyricism from earlier records is still in top form here. “I’ve got a drawer full of your notes / And wood games that we played on planes / And five pages at least of you / Practicing signing your first with my last name” belts singer Dave Davison in “Old & Gray.” The words are always simple but the emotions are complex, and while the lyrics of this album would make for great poetry, they just don’t work when the music is so generic and one-sided.

Until now, everything Maps & Atlases has produced has been solid gold, and they really were primed to explode if they had continued to play towards their strengths. But instead, Beware and Be Grateful is something of a misstep; instead of truly evolving their sound, they just made it more generic, and that’s a shame.

So check out Perch Patchwork. Check out Tree, Swallows, Houses. Check out You, Me, and the Mountain. Know that Maps & Atlases are a fantastic band, because they are, and hope that this record was just a tiny mistake, a footnote in a long and successful career.

Maps & Atlases – Beware and Be Grateful tracklist:

  1. “Old & Gray”
  2. “Fever”
  3. “Winter”
  4. “Remote & Dark Years”
  5. “Silver Self”
  6. “Vampires”
  7. “Be Three Years Old”
  8. “Bugs”
  9. “Old Ash”
  10. “Important”