The recording of music in secluded confinement by all-powerful bedroom-pop artists often leads to material that's distressingly predictable, full of dazzling concepts and ideas, but humdrum in its construction. The difference with a group like Maps & Atlases is that the music never seems stagnant. This isn't a band that records live, and the repetition of looped sounds and multi-tracked complexity makes their music seem largely synthetic despite an aesthetic that's mostly rooted in organic instruments. But Maps & Atlases never forget they're a band either, imbued with a collaborative sensibility that feels off the cuff, even with songs that are as meticulously plotted and constructed on Beware and Be Grateful, a quality that keeps their music surprising, weird, and clumsily graceful.
The results recall an act like Tune-Yards, whose music, despite being the work of a solo artist, has the same shaggy quality, by turns brilliant and infuriating. Beware and Be Grateful plays it a little safer, and the outcome is less daffily brilliant but more consistent, with a strong collusion of odd music and literate lyrics. Like 2010's great Perch Patchwork, the album provides brainy pop with a strong experimental bent, here pushed in an even more satisfying, complex direction.
The most interesting thing about Beware and Be Grateful is how it transposes traditional instrumentation onto more free-form structures. "Old and Gray" is in many ways a rock song, utilizing standard instruments, a verse-chorus structure, and a narrative vocal arc. But the way it mixes up and repeats elements, many of them products of singer Dave Davison's voice, is disorienting and thrilling. It recalls recent work by TV on the Radio, another group that reconstitutes nonverbal contributions from its singers within an intricate mélange of organic and electronic sources.
On "Old and Gray," shards of guitar, voice, and electronics flit in and out of the mix, with certain soundbites repeating heavily for a while, then disappearing entirely, an entropic template that resembles an ever-shifting rap beat. Near the end the song, it transforms entirely, downshifting into a thrumming refrain, which segues seamlessly into "Fever." That track rides a U2-aping groove into a synth trill, which gradually wrests the song from a rock-oriented structure only to recede again, giving up control to a guitar solo and a procession of pounding drums.
This is music that resists easy classification, spinning from short, hooky pop songs like "Vampires" to the expansive frippery of "Silver Self." Each song is an entirely different experience, but each shares a similar approach, most notably familiar structures that are threatened and inevitably enhanced by corollary elements. It's how a track like "Bugs" can reiterate the same single measure guitar riff for three minutes without ever sounding repetitive. It's in this way the band takes the modern approach to do-it-yourself, kit-based music, laying a succession of canned components end to end, and completely shakes it up. The result is a singular experience and one of the best albums of the year so far.