Don’t believe what the cynics tell you: Embracing pop appeal doesn’t have to mean abandoning experimentalism. It’s one thing to eschew individuality for accessibility’s sake—that’s what we call “selling out.” But it’s another matter entirely when a talented experimental band chooses to take a more direct approach with its songwriting and throws some hooks in with the risk-taking. Beware And Be Grateful, the latest effort by pigeonholing-proof Chicagoans of Maps And Atlases, proves this point quite eloquently, expertly fusing the complex rock of the band’s early EPs with elegant, polished pop.
Beware‘s centerpiece, “Silver Self,” is all the proof you need. There’s a lot going on in the song: clumsy rhythms, cheery background vocals and a frothy, fragmented guitar solo that envelops the whole second half. Yet, beneath all the competing sonic textures at play churns an infectious Afro-pop beat, one that anchors the more experimental elements and keeps you on your feet. Just when you’re getting comfortable in the Peter Gabriel-esque swing of things, however, frontman Dave Davison and company add an unexpected twist. From the ’80s-heartland stomp of “Vampires” to the stir-crazy new wave of “Fever,” Beware sees Maps And Atlases occupying an impressive range of niches, with consistently strong results. Thankfully, this all-encompassing approach doesn’t come at the expense of consistency; there are plenty of the band’s sonic trademarks at play, such as the abrupt key/tempo shift that stops opener “Old And Gray” in its tracks or the lively polyrhythms of “Bugs.”
Maps And Atlases is a band that defies typical notions of genre or sound. That’s not to say comparisons are impossible to make; with his honeyed, athletic croon, Davison isn’t too far removed from his California contemporary Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards. One can draw a lot of parallels between the two acts—both play vocal-rich, odd-ball music that looses pop from its traditional confines and pushes it to challenging new territories. Unlike Garbus’s orchestral-rooted work, however, Davison is very well aware that he is fronting a talented, formidable rock band, and so the sounds here are brawnier, which makes them all the more immediate and perhaps more lasting as well.