Chicago four-piece Maps & Atlases are one of those more interesting of propositions: the band that can’t – quite – be categorised. Although Shiraz Dada, Chris Hainey, Dave Davison and Erin Elders have been performing and recording EPs together since 2004, it has taken until now for a full album to be released. With it, perhaps, comes the opportunity for some closer analysis of the various elements that contribute to the band’s particular sound.
As often billed, there certainly are elements of math rock in evidence here, although quite subtly worked into the blend. Witness in particular the shonky beats and fragmented time signatures of opener Will, Is, the inventive Banished By Cavalier, the propulsive If This Is and the title track Perch Patchwork. More dominant, though, are the Afrobeat rhythms and flourishes, and a thread of folk-like features that runs through their music. The former can be heard enjoyably lilting and lifting the pace and mood, on Israeli Caves, Banished By Cavalier and Pigeon. The folkier aspects of the band’s sound can be heard in Solid Ground, all tremulous vocal and low-key percussion; Is, with its tambourine and acoustic guitar picking; and the mandolin and glockenspiels of Was. This last, though, mixes up the elements further yet by deploying saxophone that brings it closer to jazz than anything else on the album.
This kind of mix and match approach can often result in a hotch-potch that sounds more confusing than listenable. Happily, the results here remain enjoyable and mostly melodious. Stand out tracks include the lovelorn yet jaunty Solid Ground, Israeli Caves and Banished By Cavalier – the best example of the band’s ability to pull something coherent and melodious from the competing elements.
The occasional beautiful, touching or revelatory lyrical couplet stands out and remains in the mind. The Charm’s “I don’t think that there’s a sound that I hate more / Than the sound of your voice / When you say that you don’t love me anymore” tells its tale economically and a twist. In Solid Ground the protagonist – presumably lovelorn once again – “slept on the solid ground near your house”. If This Is movingly bemoans the state of “sleeping pointlessly alone”. In Pigeon In Pigeon, the declaration that “you were the proudest thing I’d ever seen” is the key line, but – as too often here – it is rather over-used, repeated time and again throughout the track until it becomes repetitive and loses much of the impact and emotional heft that it originally had.
Nevertheless this is pleasingly accessible, listenable fare. Despite having been woven from such disparate and sometimes complex musical traditions it wears any complexity with such lightness that the listener is rather welcomed in than turned away. Those seeking greater musical challenges will probably want to look elsewhere, but there is much here to praise and enjoy.