Maps and Atlases 

Charting a new course

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Maps & Atlases

with the Big Sleep, Sister Crayon
7 p.m. Sunday, May 27
The Plaza Live,

Beware and Be Grateful

(Barsuk Records)

Although Chicago's Maps & Atlases have been inching away from the spazz-math that initially spawned them, this album is a big enough leap into pop convention to result in some head scratching and quizzical faces.

What always distinguished them from their Gordian contemporaries was their discernible pop smarts. Despite all the technical gymnastics, even common listeners can recognize the song in their compositions. Because bridging math and pop is a needle Maps & Atlases have threaded so well, cherry-picking the virtues of each side while avoiding their respective pits, this record's directness is sure to spark debate among the fanbase about whether they've gone too far.

Beware and Be Grateful features a bright-eyed indie pop sound arranged with more light and space than ever before. It's intelligent, dynamic and even polyrhythmic, but it's decidedly not staunchly arithmetical. But besides upsetting what's widely considered their virtuous – and virtuosic – balancing act, it can occasionally seem uninteresting.

However, repeated and open-minded listening will reveal some solid songwriting and greater play for Dave Davison's prime-time voice. In fact, the album's best triumphs are the most unimpeded songs, including the clear-eyed soar of “Fever,” the crystalline skip of “Winter,” the straight-ahead rock of “Vampires” and especially the stripped and soulful groove of “Old Ash.”

For some diehards, accepting this album will require a recalibration of perspective – not an easy thing to do considering Maps & Atlases' first niche impression. Yes, it's more overtly pop, but this work more manifestly underscores their ability for songcraft and not just dazzling patterns. Considering the definitude of this step, it may finally be time to reframe what we think this band is all about and understand them as an indie rock band rather than exclusive members of the narrow math-rock tribe. More loudly than ever, they're affirming here that they're more about spirit than mere instrumental obsession. And that's universal.

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