When I was in the eighth grade, my music class consisted of singing off-pitch choral exercises and learning to play “Hot Cross Buns” on the ear-piercing recorder. I certainly wasn’t jamming with rock stars. But this past May, 10 insanely lucky eighth-graders from the drumline at Willie Brown Academy got just such an opportunity, when the Chicago-based band Maps & Atlases showed up at the San Francisco junior high school loaded with instruments and a new song called “The Charm.”
The song, which appears on M&A’s new album Perch Patchwork, had “this really huge drum sound,” says frontman Dave Davison in a short interview included in the video of the event, which was produced by the website Yours Truly. “We thought it would be fun to re-create that at some point. Have a band come to your school and play music with [the students]…We thought it would be fun. It was fun for us!”
What resulted was good fun, not just for the kids but for us listeners as well. When, halfway through “The Charm,” the solid marching-band drums kick in (a pairing that has often been tried but rarely succeeded), the ballad-like tune is completely transformed. While the song’s repeated lyrics—“I don’t think there is a sound that I hate more / Than the sound of your voice / When you say that you don’t love me anymore”—are essentially sad and spiteful, the powerful, confident drums drive home the song’s ultimate message that everything’s going to be alright in the end.
“The Charm” is far and away my favorite track on Perch Patchwork (and one of the best singles I’ve heard in a long while, period), but it’s not the disc’s only high point; another is “Israeli Caves,” with a happy Afropop feel that makes several later appearances on the album. Davison’s slow, deep, crooning vocals on the track are complemented nicely by a “Kodachrome”-like percussion beat, and the song positively shoots sunshine and rainbows when the other band members join in with an “oh-la-la-la” chorus.
“Pigeon” follows in a similarly Afropop-ish vein, but by way of Vampire Weekend rather than Paul Simon. The sharp, catchy guitar riffs and assorted percussion offer up an island-y feel that will have you tapping your foot along at the very least. (I’ll admit I found myself dancing alone to the song in my room, with both arms flailing high above my head.) Another track that prominently features assorted drums and percussion devices, courtesy of Chris Hainey, is “Living Decorations,” a catchy, soulful tune with funky guitar playing and muffled, hazy vocals from Davison. It’s clear that Maps & Atlases love their percussion and know how to use it.
Perch Patchwork also contains three relatively short nearly-instrumentals: “Will,” “Is,” and “Was.” (I use the word “nearly” because these tracks feature a bit of wordless singing from Davison.) “Will,” which as the opening track acts as a kind of prelude to the album, sets the scene with rocking guitars, hazy, beautiful vocals, and of course a variety of percussion. On “Is,” a Western-sounding tune, you can actually hear the winds whipping through what I would imagine to be a ghost town. “Was,” appearing toward the end of the album, has a less flowing and more dissonant sound to it.
The tracks that don’t quite do it for me—“Carrying the Wet Wood,” “If This Is,” and “Was”—seem to wander aimlessly. While they all have the redeeming quality of experimenting with more unusual melodies and song structures, I found my interest in these musical detours wearing thin very quickly. But the disc’s other, more hook-y songs more than make up for these few duds.
For those of you new to the music of Maps & Atlases, be sure to check out their fan-friendly website (mapsandatlases.org) and MySpace page. The sites contain a number of videos, including the collaboration with a junior high drumline on “The Charm” as well as another D.I.Y. video of the band playing an acoustic version of “Solid Ground” in front of Webster Hall just before a show there. M&A also has an exceptionally great Twitter feed, which is frequently updated from the road on their current world tour.
As for the songs on Perch Patchwork, when they’re good they’re really good. And even when they’re less than stellar, maybe the band is just experimenting and trying to figure out exactly who they are. And I’m okay with that.