BEYOND MATH ROCK Guitarist Erin Elders (second from right) hears his band's second and latest
record, Beware & Be Grateful, as "a balance between lightness and darkness."
The real joy of listening to Maps & Atlases' music doesn't come from how it sounds but from what it makes you see. Maps load their tunes with enough enthusiastic flourishes that listening to the average song is likely to generate vivid mental images. For example, every time the sparkling guitar line on "Every Place Is a House" kicks in, it's as if 10,000 butterflies are being released from 10,000 nets, producing a sunlit explosion of rainbow hues. The folky, ultra-upbeat "Israeli Caves" sounds like a B-side from The Little Mermaid soundtrack — maybe a tune Sebastian and some woodland inhabitants tinkered with while procrastinating on "Kiss the Girl."
Maps guitarist Erin Elders hears his band's second and latest record, Beware & Be Grateful (Barsuk), as "a balance between lightness and darkness" in which certain songs are "dark-cloud-like but in a way that there's a ray of hope outside of that cloud." Maps & Atlases' material conveys a genuine warmth, which both lends itself to nature-related metaphors and plays off the clockwork precision of so many of their guitar parts.
Until Beware, the band's specialty had been fine-tuned math rock — that springy school of sound where guitar lines whir and spin like tops that never lose their balance — but when the group first met in 2004 at Columbia College Chicago, they just jammed without any particular ambitions. "When we first started, we all bonded over music that was a little bit more technical or progressive," Elders says by phone from Chicago. "We wanted to find a way to incorporate that sort of energy. Both Dave [Davison, guitarist/vocalist] and I grew up on very guitar-driven classic rock and also more progressive stuff. At the same time, we've also always wanted to make music that was not just challenging [but] also music that someone could have fun listening to or just relate to on a personal or emotional or just human level. As we've kept going, we've figured out ways to make the technical side of things a little bit more subtle."
A story from Beware& Be Grateful's development illuminates Maps' willingness to try something new for the hell of it. Davison and producer Jason Cupp were once walking around a weekly farmers' market when they found a pseudo–yard sale in which four or five Casio keyboards were being sold for cheap. Davison snapped them all up, and the band began writing with the instruments a couple of months later. Although most of the keyboard-bred sounds don't appear on the finished album, substantial use of these tools meant a major shift from their usual guitar-heavy writing style. Beware does sound seriously different from Maps' early stuff, as acrobatic guitars typically take a back seat to airier, poppier compositions that channel the same vibe as tUnE-yArDs, and there's more breathing room than in the past.
"I love experimental music, but I don't spend a lot of time listening to it," Elders says. "I've always been into artists who really can say something in a way that as a person, I can walk away from, like, 'Oh, that song totally made me think about this or reminds me of this.' " Elders then mentions the band's simultaneous interest in Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz To Come and Otis Redding. "While we want to make music that's challenging, I don't want it to be experimentation for the sole sake of experimenting."
MAPS & ATLASES + ZECHS MARQUISE + SISTER CRAYON | Middle East, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | May 18 @ 8 pm | 18+ | $14 | 617.864.EAST or mideastclub.com