[Barsuk; 2012]

With their first few EPs, Maps & Atlases made quick work of reconciling their competing musical elements. They had a number of weapons in their arsenal and they knew when and how to deploy them. From idiosyncratically rendered percussion, to devilish guitars, and a growing adoration for world-oriented music, their music displayed an uncanny sense of place. The songs were eager to yank you out of your comfort zone just as you were settling into the grooves. Never ones to alienate, Maps & Atlases have imbued Beware and Be Grateful with the same affable quirks, but they’ve missed out on an opportunity to build on the progress they’ve shown throughout their 8-year career.

While its songs are intelligently constructed and reasonably engaging, Beware and Be Grateful is neither as consistent nor as good as Perch Patchwork. It reuses many of the same tricks, and borrows a little too much from other contemporary acts. The keen balance of math and pop is still intact, but for all the effort they’ve clearly put into the arrangements, there’s nothing that genuinely stands out. The album also has a handful of flat-out bad tracks. Leading this charge is “Silver Self.” It sounds shoddy, lacks hooks, and drags over its six-and-a-half minute run time. “Vampires” channels 80s bigness unconvincingly, and “Be Three Years Old,” despite its bubbliness, is largely impenetrable.

I’ve always liked Dave Davison’s voice, but here he channels Phil Collins a little too closely for the comparison to be avoided. While Davison is more than capable of carrying a tune, it’s probably not advisable to set such prohibitive standards for yourself. His diction is iffy, as if proper enunciation would contrast too sharply with the discursive instrumentation. He really comes into his own on “Old Ash” and “Important,” which, while respectable on their own, disrupt the continuity of the album. They exhibit the profundity that Maps & Atlases are capable of, but due to their sequencing they can’t help but feel tacked on.

With nimble, flickering guitar parts and Davison’s stabilizing croon, “Winter” is a highlight, while the pretty but gloomy melody on “Remote and Dark Years” is comfort food amidst a sea of major key mediocrity. The real problem is that Maps & Atlases have yet to decide if they’re a pop band with unusually lofty artistic aspirations, or art rockers with pop sensibility. At its best, Beware and Be Grateful serves as a distillation of this predicament. In trying to showcase their strengths with such fervency, Maps & Atlases have instead yielded a product of conflicted ambitions. They sound like too much like themselves and too much like the others, and even if you discount the pinpoint instrumentation, it’s depressingly calculated.