With a dynamic and buoyant sound coursing through their newest album from Barsuk Records, Maps & Atlases delivers a distinctive energy that keeps ears tuned and seldom bores. Beware and Be Grateful progresses with strength and force that can both haunt and excite listeners as they join this band on what extends into a somewhat experimental sonic journey. Their songs are rife with juicy hooks, catchy beats and delightful melodies, and are all backed with fairly grandiose lyrics. Maps & Atlases’ sophomore album is not easily categorized; however, this does not detract from the intrigue they build as the record plays on. They’ve constructed an album with a much more electronic and synthetic feel, rather than the organic style one may expect. Even so, their enterprising energy, memorable lyrics and captivating production offer some great rewards.
This is an album full of laments and stories. Opening track “Old and Gray” is an amalgamation of memories of a lost love mingled with certain hope. Frontman Dave Davison sings, "I’ve got a drawer full of your notes / and word games we played on planes / and five pages at least of you / practicing signing your first with my last name / Somewhere there’s an orange on the table / Somewhere there’s a robe on the floor / And our writing on the wall is under three coats of paint / In an apartment we don’t live in anymore." It’s a purposefully haunting song full of melancholy tones that thankfully give way to a brighter side as it leads into more up-beat tracks that follow. Songs like “Fever” and “Winter” contain less emotionally intense lyrics and exhibit catchy riffs to make the listener want to sing along. “Old Ash” and “Bugs” offer fresh and contemporary instrumental backing while others like “Be Three Years Old” border on a near-folksy interlude that could easily have found a place in a mid-90’s album of similar spunk.
Taking all of this into consideration, Beware and Be Grateful favors boastful technological explorations over vocals and lyricism. While this adds an element of momentum in that the arrangements are bolstered with cerebral and well-crafted beat-laden instrumentation, it can come off as a bit soulless.
Also, the sequencing of the record is fairly awkward, with tempos and moods out of sync, disrupting what flow there may have been. This makes Beware and Be Grateful essentially feel like an ill-conceived mix-tape. Around the half-way mark, listeners feel they’re moving in one direction, but then steady rhythms and solid melodies are defeated by erratic tempos and a heavier-handed vocal-synthesizer. This ruins the atmosphere that they work so hard to build for the first half of the album. In a progressively auto-tuned musical universe, however, Maps & Atlases’ style of vocal synthesizing is intriguing. Rather than compensating for a lack of talent, or trying to attempting to embellish the rawness of the human voice, their employment of auto-tune and synthesizers helps to enhance the vocals in a compelling and engaging way.
Though it is encouraging and enjoyable to see this band take risks and experiment with their sound, at times they may be taking themselves too seriously. There’s a perceptible element of fun that unfortunately never quite delivers, even though the album showcases some driving beats and uptempo pieces. Beware and Be Grateful manages to dodge mediocrity with its bombastic sound and clever sonic architecture, but it still slightly misses the mark by flexing muscles that may have been better served with consistency over experimentation.