There is a certain nostalgic quality to faded old maps, in a way that doesn’t really apply to anything else. Over Christmas a friend actually unearthed a massive, practically room-filling account of Yorkshire (stretching all the way from Middlesborough at the top down to King’s Lynn) from around 1920. It was an epic thing, with stories of lives lived and roads traveled peeling off the yellowing pages, pages that took an age to unfold for fear of tearing a hole in the middle of Brighouse or somewhere, losing an entire town for an eternity.
In this sense, Early Cartographers is a very appropriate (if a little daunting) name for a band not afraid to deal in the large-scale grandeur of waltzing brass bands, string sections and multiple vocalists whilst always maintaing some vague wistful link to the past. It’s not just the fact that the instruments remain resolutely unplugged throughout, or that the track titles allude to times gone by (none so beautifully as the apparent allusion to Victorian values and Protestantism in ‘Telegraphs from Utopia’) but in the songcraft – or cartography – itself, the seeming determination that has gone into structure, harmony and instrumentation, a set of values that otherwise had surely passed with the heyday of Jimmy Webb and Van Dyke Parks. The middle track on the EP for example, ‘Counterfeits’, modulates into the major key after around a minute, leading to what we assume would be the chorus. Instead, it just builds and builds into what could easily have been a stadium-sized, hands-in-the-air sing-a-long – only to mutate into a gorgeously brief string passage, pounding drums, and then – silence, and start again. It is a song which evidently has had some thought put into it, in order to avoid it sounding like pretty much every other proto-Mumford and Sons ham folk act that exists out there.
Admittedly, the band don’t always pull off the impossible act of sounding completely original throughout. The opening track on Wolf Chorus, ‘In the Old Days’, bears more than a little too much similarity with the tinkly-tink guitars and Um-Pah-Pah brass of Beruit for comfort, and although the lyrics contain some stirring imagery (‘Paint a black line across my eyes/To leave them closed/And keep them closed’) they don’t really develop those ideas, instead letting the song dissolve into the ‘woah-oh-oh’ refrain they so neatly avoided elsewhere. ‘Telegraphs from Utopia’ has some lovely ideas too, vocal lines (‘It’s OK, it’s OK) threading in and out from the mix and the beautiful xylophone and guitar playing in the instrumental section is probably the highlight of the EP – but the explosion we were waiting for at the end is a little bit of an anti-climax. There’s much promise though, and signs that with development and a continued focus on crafting their songs into individual shapes, Early Cartographers could really go places. They are into maps after all.