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Audio Reviews
Perch Patchwork
by Maps & Atlases
Barsuk Records (2010)
Perch Patchwork
For most bands, the debut album is the thing—the sink-or-swim, make-or-break moment, captured for posterity in physical form. It’s a product of months or even years of preparation and hard work, and its success or failure regularly dictates the musical futures of the persons most directly responsible for its making. As the album, so the band.

With this in mind, it’s somewhat odd to note that Chicago quartet Maps & Atlases’ debut full-length album, Perch Patchwork, feels more like a sophomore gamble than a label-sponsored first time out. Compared with the percussive bombast, hyper-technical fretwork, and generally spastic math-rock bent of previous limited-press EPs Tree, Swallows, Houses and You and Me and the Mountain, Perch Patchwork constitutes a sharp left turn for the band, as it finds Maps & Atlases favouring instrumental subtlety and vocal reservation over frenzied sonic immediacy. Rhythmically, Shiraz Dada’s erstwhile prominent bass is frequently lost in producer Jason Cupp’s startlingly spacious musical mix, while Chris Hainey’s robust and intuitively free-roaming percussion is kept on a questionably tight lead. Erin Elders’s bright-and-clean electric six tends to play second chair to David Davison’s own hollow-body contributions, both of which are kept tucked all-too-safely underneath Davison’s distinctively nasal, mumbling, Muppet-like honk. A questionable move, that—though instantly recognizable, Davison’s oft-unintelligible vocals and rhythmic tra-la-la-ing are not exactly the virtuosic band’s main draw.

I mean, honestly: consider “Artichokes” and “Daily News” off You and Me and the Mountain, frenetically hammer-on-happy math-rock spasms partnered with vocals, not subservient to them. Set those up against the Baroque pop tendencies of Perch Patchwork, wherein Davison stands front and center while string, brass, woodwind, and choral flourishes tend to flood the spaces where quick-fingered riffs and polyrhythmic fills would heretofore have stood on equal footing, and it’s safe to say that Maps & Atlases have taken a bit of a stylistic detour.

Introductory track “Will”, for one, is a cavernously echoing and strum-buzzing hollow-body romp aided by wordless vocal trills and distant-sounding percussion, slowly building and seamlessly bleeding into the petulant coos of “The Charm”, in which Davison vents his jilted lover’s spleen against a light backdrop of neigh-unrecognizably distorted guitar tones and an expanding, explosive martial tattoo. That these first two tracks are a stark departure for Maps & Atlases is a given (whither the dueling hammer-on’s?), one that is more than a bit unnerving if the listener is coming into the album expecting mere studio enhancement rather than a stylistic evolution.

To soothe the skittish, “Living Decorations” heads back to more familiar territory with staccato finger-taps and rolling percussion augmented by six-string fuzz and doubled vox, but the end result is still more “produced” than the simply sung and cleanly arpeggiated fretwork of Maps & Atlases’ previous endeavours. Likewise, current digital single “Solid Ground” doctors up the old formula with shots of woodwind and guitar distortion; the overall effect is calming, but no less driven.

Ditto for “Is”, a droning, humming, cooing, primarily acoustic étude bridging “Solid Ground” to the far more upbeat “Israeli Caves”, the latter of which coalesces into perhaps the best union of old and new on Perch Patchwork: Hainey and Dada thumping, tapping, rumbling, and crashing their entrancing rhythms, Elders and Davison blending and playing off of one other’s bright picks and strums, and added choral support for Davison’s warmly warbled squawk.

Again, Maps & Atlases never quite attain to the rambunctiousness of, say, “Everyplace is a House” off Tree, Swallows, Houses, yet their newer compositions hardly skimp on complexity or dynamism—cue the brass, woodwind, and string embellishments of “Banished Be Cavalier”, the fleet-fingered riffs of “Carrying the Wet Wood”, the horn-aided finger-picking and head-bobbing bass thump of “Pigeons”, and the bluesy twang and lonesome coos of “If This Is” and “Was”. Raucous? Not by a long shot. Overt signs of maturing songwriting? Quite.

By the time string-and-woodwind-aided title track “Perch Patchwork” rounds out the album, don’t be too surprised if Maps & Atlases’ newfound love of sedated symphonics begins to feel like something more than just a passing phase. While not irrecoverably removed from their previous efforts, Maps & Atlases’ Perch Patchwork nevertheless demonstrates that the David Davison & co. have reconsidered their sound during their most recent stint in the studio, sanding down the sharper edges, brushing away the coarser grit, and hand-carving delicate bits of filigree here and there. It’s a cleaner, more polished and refined effort, and that much more accessible because of it.

Even so, since Perch Patchwork promises to be Maps & Atlases’ first widely-available release—thanks in no small part to the proven marketing abilities and retail chain connections of independent label heavyweights Barsuk Records and Redeye Distribution—it's highly unlikely that most listeners will know the difference.

If you dig Maps & Atlases new approach, or simply hope to hear them play some old favourites, be sure to catch their upcoming tour dates with Cults and Laura Stevenson and the Cans:

August 12 @ Mercury Lounge – New York, NY
August 13 @ Knitting Factory – New York, NY
August 14 @ Kung Fu Necktie – Philadelphia, PA
August 15 @ Black Cat (backstage) – Washington, DC
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (July 12th, 2010)

Tags: audio, reviews, maps & atlases, perch patchwork, barsuk records