|Label:||Fat Cat Records|
Tall Ships sail schizo-frenetically between genres without maps or atlases, jack-knifing in the middle of songs between Two Door disco archipelago and the port of Beirut. Live, they have an aggression which picks up exactly where bands like Hell is for Heroes left off in 2004 (the year that Maps & Atlases was born), when Funeral for a Friend pissed on everyone’s amps, paving the way for the passionless shit hop beleaguering our charts since. It’s a talent vacuum only recently reinvestigated by similarly floppy-haired bands like Dry the River, born with a Silverchair in their mouth, and it is singularly refreshing.
Perhaps their schizoid nature is why Tall Ships were picked to support Maps & Atlases touring their new album, Beware and Be Grateful, which as song writer Dave Davison explained to me, is all about duplicity:
“We wanted to challenge ourselves by making an album that was really new, that was accessible as could be but that was also really challenging for us. I think that’s pretty much been the goal for our band since the beginning, to make songs that are challenging for us artistically but are also meaningful and interesting. I think this album is the most representative of that out of anything we’ve done because all the parts are the most naturally tied and interlocked.”
Davison uses what David Mitchell might call a cloud atlas to navigate a whirling vortex of genres, whisking together oil and water influences from Don Cab to Doo-wop, so it’s easy to forget what a hit machine these guys are. Hailing from Chicago, home of the blues in the north, and just 4 hours drive from Hitsville USA, at one time the band’s myspace listed James Jamerson as their only influence.
With his untameable chin shrubbery, nerd glasses like your dad wore in 1970 and his roving mane, Davison looks at first like an Appalachian mountain man; a gappy-toothed porch ornament, but he’s just too funky for folk. Hot Club de Paris’ Paul Rafferty, who asked Dave Davison to tap some guest guitar out on a Hot Club track called The Dice Just Wasn’t Loaded From the Start, described him to me as a savant; living, breathing, thinking music, and since I last saw the band in February last year, they have been touring pretty much constantly.
“Everyone was talking about how wild it was, it really wasn’t that wild except for one night in Mexico, a guy in one of the bands that was opening for us was going crazy and jumped off a table into this girl. It was definitely a wild show but after touring a bunch we had the final show in Lollapalooza in Chicago and that was really fun.”
When it came to writing the new album at Omaha’s ARC Studios with producer Jason Cupp (The Elected, Nurses, Good Old War), the touring had a big impact on the method as well as the subjects.
“When we toured Perch Patchwork, that was the first time we had jammed and improvised together. We went into recording relaxed, just being open to looseness because we wanted to have a real feeling of everything coming together. We were hauled up in a house/ studio down in Omaha, it was super mellow, we just kinda settled in and worked on it for a while.”
The non-prescriptive approach continued when they picked up a bag of second-hand Casio keyboards at a local farmer's market (that’s American agricultural policy for you):
“Some of that ended up on the final album, but mostly it went into the demo process. In previous recordings when we were demoing the songs we’d just have the chords and vocals and try to figure out tempo and everything: we basically did that, but rather than have guitars we had all these crazy keyboard sounds so when we finally came in and were trying to approach it as a band, having all these bizarre reference points really opened up the potential of the songs.”
The songs on the album have titles such as “Old and Grey”, and “Old Ash”, and seem to be a warning to a younger self from a rapidly aging one to “beware and be grateful” for youth, with a Boy Scout badge for the achievement adorning the cover (and if you needed more proof that the band are grown-ups, how about the fact that they teamed up with Intelligentsia coffee to offer their own ‘Maps & Atlases Selects’ coffee with pre-orders of the album): the lyrics tell stories of shoeboxes of photographs, and Davison laments “I don’t want no more remote and dark years”. Stylistically too, it feels like a flight down a rabbit hole away from adulthood; “Fever” opens with a reverb-drenched tattoo of drums like a Tears for Fears epic teen anthem.
“I really like that thought,” he enthuses softly, grinning from deep within his tangled facial apparatus and gently brushing his hair back behind an ear, “one aspect of Beware and Be Grateful is it sounds like a motto or old wisdom. Part of the balance in the songs is on the one hand feeling distant and outside of a situation; the alienation of being an observer. The album definitely has an existential quality, I think of songs like dreams: some of the songs feel like they’re watching things happen with an artistic eye, and others seem like they’re really invested in life and are a part of the situation, and the scope is changing throughout the songs. Beware and Be Grateful fits with the feeling of isolation vs. connectivity. I think being on the road is definitely part of it.”
Bassist Shiraz Dada concurred: “When you’re away all the time life moves on without you. Like Louis C.K said, it’s like a really shitty time machine because you get in it and you’re going into the future in real time, and when you get back everything’s different, but you’re the same, constantly. Chicago changes every time we go on tour, I come back to a different neighbourhood and when we’re on tour it may be a different city, but it might as well be the same one because I don’t see that much of it. I keep moving and when I get home that’s where I go to change.”
The album ends with the repeated mantra “When the curtain closes, you to find what you’re looking for” being washed away by tides of ominous synthesiser noise, and I’m left with a feeling of standing on a beach alone with night and the tide closing in around me, and that sudden feeling that all my friends have run home leaving me stranded, still looking for- my youth? Myself? My friends? Beware and Be Grateful indeed.
Check out some more photos here.
Posted: Thu 19 April 2012