When I first heard the EP “Trees, Swallows, Houses” by Chicago’s Maps & Atlases, I couldn’t get enough. All of the tapping (pre-Marnie Stern era…and yes, I know she wasn’t the first to do it, or the most well known, but it will be a cold day in hell when I start talking about Van Halen on this blog) the melodies and breakdowns. Everything about that EP is brilliant. I mean, I still can’t listen to it enough.
I remember around that time (2006), on Myspace, repeatedly checking their page. I was waiting for a follow up, or at the very least hoping that I would see them on one of my many trips to Chicago. The EP’s frenetic nature really hooked me. I would drive around all summer with it blaring from the speakers. My friends probably started to get sick of me playing “Songs for Ghosts to Haunt To” over and over while doing the typical “wait…hear that?…I mean this!?..this” with my words effectively preventing them from hearing (and consequently caring) about what I was even talking about.
The perfectly synchronized guitar parts, the prog/math-rock nature of the whole affair, the punch of the drums and the deft bass playing. Everything on that song wraps up the entire EP solidly. The only thing I could think to compare it to in order to try and sell it to my classic-era British-prog of the 70’s loving friends (and yes I was not too long before that in their shoes) was to say that the song kind of sounded like Yes. The virtuosic guitar, the busy bass work, the singer with the weird voice, tricky meters. I at least got some of them to listen.
It took 4 long years to get a follow up to that EP. “Perch Patchwork” was released, with lead single “Solid Ground.” That song was immediately underwhelming. It wasn’t even that the song seemed like it would be a grower. “Solid Ground” never, well, leaves the ground and the album is full of mid-tempo dirges that sort of lie flat. “Will” starts the album off on a note that distances itself severely from anything that appeared on “Trees, Swallows, Houses.” With it’s finger picked acoustic guitar and the generally more spacious aesthetic, it’s surely a huge leap in the direction of developing a different sound, and it certainly comes as a surprise. This is not the album that I think anyone was expecting. Certainly not I.
To be fair, the album does show the band thinking in much larger terms. They seemed more interested in creating a narrative arc, or at least an aesthetic arc, that connected each song across the album in a much different way than previously attempted. That the songs are considerably more straight-ahead and poppy, even repetitive, is somewhat disappointing. It seems as though the bottom fell out, energy-wise. “Perch Patchwork” just hobbles along. Granted these songs are well crafted for what they are, but it left me wondering about what could have possibly led to this drastic shift in sound? Had they run out of ideas for their previous writing style? Did they want to avoid being pigeon-holed and therefore decided to ditch one of the things that truly made them stand out? I mean, what happened in those 4 years between EP and LP? Where there was once not a wasted second there were now filler instrumental tracks like “Will,” “Is,” and “Was.” “Carrying Wet Wood” and “Pigeon” start off promising, but only come close to capturing the band’s former glory before backing off. Both tracks turn into these strange, neutered, watered down Rusted Root sounding fake folk.
2012’s “Beware and Be Grateful” is really no better. The album focuses more and more on Davison’s vocals and spaciousness. Again, the energy just isn’t there anymore. The sound of “Perch Patchwork” is developed now to include sterile production and even less instrumental work. “Silver Self” seems to go on for an eternity, bringing in terrible sounding synthetic drum loops and layers of vocals. The Talking Heads did this type of thing so much better 30 years ago. Not even a flashy guitar solo (that goes on far too long, wandering well into masturbation territory) can help the track. In fact I would say that in that case it does more harm than good. “Remote and Dark Years” takes its cues from the bombast of 80’s production values, rendering it simultaneously introspective and overblown. One saving grace may be “Winter,” which is actually a good song as far as verse-chorus-verse things go. Good changes, nice arrangement and interplay amongst the entire band. Though, unfortunately, “Winter” is the anomaly. When they return to something energetic like “Be Three Years Old” it does away with the rawness and urgency that the band used to be so good at capturing.
The point, if there is a point, is this: when the energy left and the band stopped highlighting their strengths and what set them apart, that is when they gave in to mediocrity. It’s hard for me to understand why any band would seemingly make an effort to start over almost from the beginning. They went from standing apart, perfecting their fresh and exciting sound, to instead hurling themselves headlong into a vast ocean of bland rock music.