There’s always a part of me that wants to be simultaneously dismissive and invested in a new album from a band that I have a lot of respect for and enjoy. It’s a weird dichotomy, sure, but I’ve gotten to the point in my “fan” career to have become a little gun shy when it comes to new releases - sometimes they just don’t do for me what previous albums have done, or they’re such a departure from what makes that band the creators of music I so thoroughly enjoy.
I had a chance to talk with Dave Davison, vocalist and guitarist of Maps & Atlases, a Chicago trio (formerly 4-piece) who had been missing from a scene that they helped usher in for over half a decade. I’ve been a fan of the band from early on, and have a singular, vivid memory of when I was able to see them perform live 3 times in one day. We talked a bit about coming back from a period of relative quiet, and what it’s like to step back into the spotlight after being out of it for so long.
“Anytime that I actually hear any of our older music, I’m always like, ‘Oh, this is really interesting to hear this,’ because our reference is usually how they sound live. And I think these songs are going to fit in really nicely,” Davison says. “I think that we knew what we did on the first EP, that we really liked, which was sort of experimenting with rhythm in a way where we could put it together in this really unique and abstract way. And we’ve continued doing that,” he continues.
“The intention behind the music is the common thread. “
After Maps & Atlases kind of, sort of disappeared, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from their latest, Lightlessness Is Nothing New. They’ve always been quirky, niche. Their very specific brand of flighty, challenging psych jazz-influenced indie rock attracted a very specific audience, myself included. I obsessed over their “debut” EP, Trees, Swallows, Houses, a frenetic, almost exhaustingly challenging display of songwriting prowess. It was a burst of WTF in an otherwise boring musical landscape and led me down a rabbit hole I wasn’t sure I was ever going to successfully emerge from. For the band, though, it’s always been about momentum, scene aesthetics be damned.
Davison says, “I think the evolution between our first EP and the second is the same that we’ve gone through from the first LP to now.” But that evolution meant, well, evolving.
“Once we started being able to stack things and layer things, our mindsets didn’t change that much, it’s just that we could do the same thing only a lot more. And now, we’re just a lot more ambitious in other ways,” he says.
The new album, though, had a sort of… unsure genesis.
“I started recording some of these songs and I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen with them. Some of them seemed like they could potentially be Maps & Atlases songs, and some of them seemed like really weird kind of songs, which I hadn’t heard before,” Davison says. “And I really liked that.”
The new album isn’t necessarily a return to the sound that helped in the continued alteration of my perception of both music and musicality, but it wasn’t quite as… languid as their last two full lengths, either. More reliant on synth work and electronic flourishes, tighter, punchier production, and definite pivot towards pop, Lightlessness Is Nothing Newhas the potential to do something for them that I wouldn’t have considered even remotely possible a decade ago - bring them into the wider music listening public’s consciousness.
“We recorded a lot of it in and finished it in North Carolina with Scott Solter, who is a really talented and unique producer and engineer. I think that a lot of his approach informed some of the liveliness of some of the tracks. “Fog and The Fall,” for example.
It’s accessible in a way that’s hard to describe, while remaining unapologetically Maps & Atlases. “Fog and the Fall” is the closest the album gets to reminiscing about their sonic beginning, while “War Dreams” wouldn’t sound out of place in a car commercial. There’s a buoyancy that’s present throughout its running time, and with the change in production style, the songs often burst from the speakers in these dancey, funky, noodly fits that, even with some of the lyrical content focusing on the passing of Davison’s father, bring a smile to my face.
One of the most interesting tracks on the album also happens to have an equally interesting video to go along with it. “4/25” is a slow, repetitive, subtly funky jam that I find myself revisiting often. There’s a lot going on in the track - layers of sounds, both recognizable and enigmatic. It’s still intriguing, even after many, many listens, and I sincerely appreciate that.
Davison put it succinctly: “We’ve expanded our ability to do different types of songs.”
And really, intriguing is a good way to describe the new album as a whole. By the time the album closes with “The Wrong Kind of Magic,” as close as I’ve heard this band come to ballad territory, you’ve definitely been on a journey.
“We tried doing a lot of stuff would maybe work, and maybe wouldn’t,” Davison explains. “There was a lot left to chance in the process that was really interesting, and really fun, and did invigorate the process in a really cool way.”
When it comes to what’s next, same as what’s come before, Davison is a bit circumspect.
“I hope that people find out about our music through whatever new methods there are for finding music. We’ve played just enough shows, and hang out with musicians, so we feel like we’re in it enough to be in touch with what’s going on.”
He laughs. “I don’t think that I am, though, at least not as much as the other people in the band. But I’m intrigued to find out.”
If you want to experience them first hand (that is, live), you’re in luck. They’re returning to Cincinnati for one of the final dates of this leg of their return tour, playing Saturday, June 30 on the stage at Fountain Square. Things get started at 7, and they’re over by 10. The Punk Rock Dad in me is happy all around. Thanks to Dave Davison for taking the time to chat with a big, big fan.
Lightlessness Is Nothing Newis out now on Barsuk Records. Check out the video for “4/25.”