the Beat Kitchen – Chicago
For Maps and Atlases’s record release party, I finally made it out to the Beat Kitchen, the heir apparent to the Bottom Lounge and one of the few decent all-ages venues left in Chicago. I was happily greeted with a club of similar feel; though not as close to any subway stops, it’s a nice venue with a similar layout. The club is divided, the bar separated by a door that leads to the medium-sized performance room. Two-dollar pints kept me at the bar for the first two bands. I ducked into the main room during The Antenora and was greeted with some tried-and-true emo-core, the clean harmonies bemoaning something or another over punk-ish riffs. In poor form as a reviewer, I snuck back to the bar to chat with friends and have another pint. It might make me sound old, but I realized, to put it in standardized text format, emo:grunge::them:us. Every generation gets a swath of marketable maudlin music and I can’t really stand much of either.
Once A Tundra, the third band, got started, I was attentively watching from the back of the hall. They began their set with a bizarre kind of indie rock, lurching across strange time signatures in a way that owes quite a bit to the Chicago experimental scene. Borrowing bits from the Joan of Arc/Make Believe family, angular bouts of guitar fought for space with stop-start drums; seizures of noise interplayed with long breaks of jazzy noodling. It’s a confusing kind of music; many people will be inclined to chat through it but those who get it will stand enraptured. It’s calculated in its dissonance, joyfully galloping around time signatures and melody, with the off-key notes falling intentionally. The music isn’t anything you can easily dance to, but if you love the style, you don’t really care. The female keyboardist took over the vocals for a song and the band started to sound like a stoned Deerhoof with a twisted pop undertone. It had a strange appeal to me, even if I’m not at all a Deerhoof fan.
The venue started to fill up further as Maps and Atlases readied for their set. They were playing tonight in support of their self released EP Tree, Swallows, House. The set began on a calm note, with the unique, acoustic number “The Ongoing Horrible.” Lead singer Dave Davison performed the song with an acoustic on his lap, tapping on the body of the guitar to form an interesting little rhythm. While singing in his throaty yet warm voice, he fret-tapped out the melody on the neck of the guitar, occasionally detuning it while playing. From the back of the stage, drummer Chris Haney filled in the melody on xylophone. The song’s soft, twisting melody served as a good introduction to the unique approach the band takes to songwriting.
Next, they launched into “The Most Trustworthy Tin Cans,” which is more akin to their usual sound: avant-pop awash with fluttering notes and kinetic, stuttering drums. While managing adhere to some of the tenants of math rock, the songs retain a strong sense of melody. They still manage to stay accessible without veering off into the usual atonal land of math rock. Each song blows its way through a confusing, but engaging mix of highs and lows, as the shifts within each song come and go with such incessant urgency. They stay experimental without floating high into the clouds away from melody.
It’s a wonderful thing to watch the whole band moving together, as songs all shift beautifully with both guitarists fret-tapping along to the frenetic work of the rhythm section. While for most people fret-tapping will probably evoke unpleasant images of 80’s hair metal, epitomized with Van Halen wanking his way through Eruption, Maps and Atlases manage to take a bizarre convention and transform it into something functional beyond gimmick. It fits into the rest of the band’s songwriting style without calling attention to itself.
The stomp and feedback of the mini-song “The Sounds They Make” lead into the halting guitar intro of “Songs for Ghosts to Haunt To,” the highlight of the evening’s set. The main guitar line jutted out like a Tasmanian devil of melody, showcasing guitarist Erin Elder’s talent. If you blinked, you missed it, as the dynamics shifted multiple times, the moving, rolling scales sliding into calmer breakdowns that showcase Dave’s voice.
After a final number, the house lights came on suddenly. The packed club made its dismay known with grumbling and calls for an encore. I had to agree; the set felt sadly short. Whether it was just a brief set, or the nature of their music leads to a skewed sense of time, I wouldn’t have objected to a far longer set. Their unique sense of structure and melody stayed with me, lingering longer than most music I’ve found recently. Maps and Atlases are finding a growing following in the Chicago local scene, and with the release of Tree, Swallows, House it stands only to expand.
Previously published on Loose Record