Chicago has fallen in love with its local boys made good Maps & Atlases, but it remains to be seen whether their full-length debut Perch Patchwork will woo the rest of us. Mixing intricate fretwork, nimble rhythms, and tart melodies, the album serves up twelve treats that are almost too sweet to eat. The foursome has always trod perilously close to self-conscious twee limbo (a common enough fate for ex-art student bands) though the grime of Chicago’s underground scene has done a decent job of cutting their postures with a little sweat. Until now. With increased exposure (recently toured with Foals) and a full album to promote, it’s a coming out party, for better or worse.
Perch Patchwork is the album you knew Maps & Atlases had in them. Their first EP Trees, Swallows, Houses showcased brilliant breakneck musicianship, folk textures spliced with world rhythms, a sort of hick Yeasayer (QRO live review). Second EP You and Me and the Mountain took a more leisurely approach, teasing out their compositions in a more masterly fashion, neither a slave to pop design nor disdainful of a certain catchy verve. Maps & Atlases take the best of both earlier efforts and produce an album that’s intensely listenable without, surprisingly, being at all gripping. Some have compared the band’s sound to the venerable Can, though another sometimes-aired comparison, Vampire Weekend (QRO live review), is more accurate. Like their Big Apple brethren, the boys from the Windy City lend their music a patina of musical eclecticism by copping world rhythms on songs like "Living Decorations" and "Israeli Caves". None of this is meant to suggest that Maps & Atlases is disingenuous in their delivery, but there remains a persistent and unshakeable feeling that Perch Patchwork is everywhere at once, and nowhere at all.
Fans of Maps & Atlases will savor some of David Davison’s most restrained vocal performances to date. The lead vocalist was born to front a band, with a voice that’s most comfortable in the stratosphere but can descend to street level when circumstances permit. His nasal textures have a charming pop lilt reminiscent of Buddy Holly when he keeps the tiller straight and doesn’t overindulge. "The Charm" is a particular success vocal-wise, and a beautiful love song to boot. The lyrics "I don’t think there is a sound I hate more / Than the sound of your voice / When you say that you don’t love me / Anymore" combine just the right amount of love and anguish to avoid syrupy sentimentalism. Also, the superb percussion can’t pass without mention. Despite stellar guitar instrumentation, the drums have always been the strength of Maps & Atlases, allowing the band to slip effortlessly from time zone to time zone in search of their musical selves.
Ultimately, Perch Patchwork is full of great pieces that don’t quite fit into a great album. It’s hard to call a band that is just releasing its debut full length ‘overcooked’, but that’s exactly what some of these tracks sound like. Case in point, the title track "Perch Patchwork", which sounds dangerously similar to late period Dave Matthews Band. Not what you want out of a young band in 2010. Maps & Atlases have too much talent to sink into oblivion based on a so-so album, so expect a sophomore full-length release, and expect it to be better.
MP3 Stream: "The Charm"