San Diego might immediately evoke images of sunshine, hard bodies, and sandy beaches, but Three Mile Pilot have always taken shelter in the seedier side of SoCal living. Meshing the jingle-jangle of indie pop with decidedly darker influences like Depeche Mode and Bauhaus, 3MP followed singer/songwriter Zach Smith into grayer, more ambient territory, a path its band members continued to follow in slightly different directions with Pinback and the Black Heart Procession over the past decade.
But although the band has never officially broken up, the 2000s found 3MP in still life while its members took on their other projects. Fortunately, the band’s long-awaited return to the fold, 2010’s The Inevitable Past is the Future Forgotten, proved the band hadn’t lost its sea legs over the course of its extended hiatus. Similarly, the Maps EP shows that music, like riding a bike, is something for which you never really lose the skills. You just get back on and ride.
Clocking in just a shade over 20 minutes, Maps hits on all of the well-defined 3MP trademarks, from the punchy, echoey production value to the lofty guitar lines and ominous minor chords. But while past records like Another Desert, Another Sea and even Inevitable Past found the band wallowing in somberness, Maps actually sounds uncharacteristically spirited at points, without pulling a 180 into Beat Happening-esque childlike whimsy. Instead, the EP lets just the faintest amount of sun threaten to break through the clouds.
“Long Way Up” leads the five-song set in jaunty fashion, and it’s among the most energized four minutes of 3MP on record. But even as the band tries on a chin-up attitude, Smith’s vocals still evoke a sense of weary desolation (“There’s no road to this town/There’s no map through the underground”). “Wires” falls back into the band’s brood-rock pattern, and they sound right at home playing their sounds of old. Other tracks, such as “Birdy”, take similar comfort lingering in the low register, further cementing the fact that the band is at its best tucked away from the light.
After a ten-plus year layoff, Maps may not be enough to fully placate a fanbase that has grown hungry over the years, but it at least makes for a satisfying nibble.
Essential Tracks: “Long Way Up,” “Wires”