Full disclosure; Maximo Park are one of my favourite bands. Since my first encounter with them in a sweaty north-east club, there are few memories that aren't intertwined with their ear for a melody and deceptively complex lyrics. They've soundtracked heartaches, adventures, falling in love; sometimes all at the same time. I once took off for an ill advised jaunt leaving a note reading only ''I'm going missing for a while (please feed the dog)'' (2005 was an odd year). So, it is with trepidation that I attempt an objective review of this, singer Paul Smith's second solo effort.
Margins, his first album under his own steam, while possessing some moments of pure joy, felt occasionally tentative and lacking solidity; as if overly cautious of stepping out of the band's shadow. Like those exhibitions that tour provincial galleries, promising Kandinskys but delivering smudges from sketchbooks; ideas part formed, notions in faded pencil wherein you can glimpse the magic but not quite grasp it in your hand. Beautiful in its own way but frustratingly missing something unquantifiable.
Contradictions is in an entirely different league. This is the artist more fully developed; confident bold Technicolor strokes where once was grey line. It's difficult not to compare it with Maximo Park; where they are often all stage strutting, bombastic delivery, this is more fragile, introspective, considered, but avoids the wandering of Margins. Dense with infectious melody, The Deep End is the perfect introduction to this exercise in arch artpop. The album's obvious references are Get Happy!! era Elvis Costello, or the neat exuberance of Prefab Sprout; of whom's Wendy Smith makes an appearance on backing vocals. It's drenched in perfectly formed harmonies that despite the often melancholy lyrics can't help but induce a smile. Before The Perspiration Falls ticks along with a subtle screech of guitar. Earnest in its declarations, in another vocalist's hands it might seem to take itself too seriously, but Smith gives it a knowing wink that imbues it with levity. All The Things You'd Like To Be and recent single Break Me Down and provide the purest pop moments on Contradictions, but as if fulfilling the title, there's a complexity that comes with repeated listens.
The most interesting and arguably best tracks are the ones where he allows himself to indulge the inner poet and us to see his vulnerabilities; I Should Never Know and Fill In The Blanks are shimmering nuggets that hint at the potential of what could come in a Park-less future. There's a definite stamp of auteurship running through the venture, a northern voice that still has a lot to say. Coney Island (On the 4th of July) feels like a musing not only on the titular place but on rundown coastal towns generally; demonstrating an eye for the inherent romance and faded glamour only learned by virtue of necessity and proximity.
This is grown up Paul Smith. Over the comedown of being erroneously tarred with the Libertines-era Brit indie brush; refreshed and confident in his now considerable longevity. It's settled, more self assured; matured, but not too much. Much like his fans now. I'm okay with this not being Maximo Park, and I think, this time, he is too.
Words - Angi Strafford
Contradictions is released on August 21st on Billingham Records. Buy on itunes
Paul Smith & The Intimations Official
With his second solo long player out now, Angi Strafford caught up with Maximo Park frontman Paul Smith as he sets off on a UK tour...
AS: You've (or at least your press release) described this album as a journey. Despite being written over a spread of time and place, it manages to remain a cohesive piece. How did you manage this?
PS: I had an overall idea of how I wanted the record to sound after the first few songs were recorded on tour back in 2010. Not much of those hotel room and tour bus recordings made it onto the album because the sound quality wasn't what I wanted, but the idea of making a 'dream-pop' record persisted. The longer gestation period meant I could tinker with the tracklist and find my ideal combination of faster and slower songs that had endured over the four years of making it. We kept the recording methods similar despite the scattered nature of the sessions and ultimately got an outside mixer in called Paddy Baird who created a cohesive, hi-fi end result.
Contradictions already seems to have a heftier PR weight behind it than Margins. Are you feeling the pressure being out on your own?
I don't think it has because last time I did a session on Radio 1, for example, and did a lot more press. Even Pitchfork did a news article on Margins, which I'm certainly not counting on this time! Maybe social media activity makes up for all that, but I'm not sure. I feel pressure all the time to be good, because I don't want to let anyone down, but ultimately, I've made a record I love and I try and spread the word as much as I can. Feeling confident about the record helps deflect pressure, but it's my living and if people don't buy the records then I might not be able to make them in the same way in the future.
Where did the name "...and the Intimations" come from and where indeed did you find the Intimations?
I wanted something redolent of old '50s beat groups that was a bit more unusual and subtle (and modern) than what they would have come up with back then. The word helps describe the subtleties of the music we make together, but is also a traditional pop device that hints at the kind of song structures I like to use. I've known Andy from Warm Digits for a long time and he recorded my first solo album in his bedroom as well as playing drums on it. David Brewis played bass on that first record, but had other commitments when it came to the tour so I asked a few people if they knew a good bassist. That's where Claire comes in. She's in a post-punky band called Beards, from Leeds and she fitted in immediately. The guest Intimations on the record are Rachel Lancaster from Silver Fox and my old band MeandthetwinS. She toured the last record with us. Then there's Wendy Smith from Prefab Sprout who I met when trying to get Paddy McAloon to play the Festival of the North East (he couldn't but Wendy said yes to singing with me). Lastly, Peter Brewis from Field Music plays some lovely piano on Quick, one of the more romantic numbers of the album.
You've used many a literary reference in the past. What were your non musical influences for this record?
Robert Frank's photographs of Coney Island and the 1929 German silent film, People On Sunday are the two most obvious examples, but the other songs describe times and places in a language that's more subconsciously influenced by the literature I read, I suspect. A couple of the poets I like to go back to are Frank O'Hara and Elizabeth Bishop. Coney Island (4th of July) also has a bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Maxim Gorky lurking in its DNA.
Coney Island (on the 4th of July) whilst conveying the spirit of the place, also reminds me of places like Seaton and Redcar. Do you think coming from where you do has given you an eye for seeing the romance in sometimes desolate places?
Yes, definitely. I used to paint industrial landscapes when I was at art college and I've always believed in trying to find something beautiful or worthy in my surroundings. Otherwise, life can be a bit grim! There's more to life than the more obviously glamorous and luxurious objects or places that we're pressured into lusting after. I want to document and transform the world around me, good and bad, making it into something I can respond to in a meaningful way.
I like living here so I see no reason to change that. I have a good quality of life and many of my friends and family are here, which is important to me. I don't know if it's caused any problems, but I suppose there's less access to me if someone wanted it. Some of the bands who get a lot of press and attention are from London, which makes me wonder if the music industry, which is based there, has more of a connection with them or were at early concerts and 'grew up' alongside those bands. I like London but it's not the be all and end all!
On your last solo tour, there seemed to be lots of shout outs for Maximo Park songs. Is this frustrating when you're trying to say something different or are you just proud it matters to people?
I don't mind the odd one or two requests, but sometimes there'll be a rare show where it gets a bit frustrating because I'm not going to play the majority of those songs and it only takes one obstinate drunk to spoil a song for the rest of the audience! Maximo Park exist to play those songs and I have a different style when I play solo. I'd have to learn most of them from scratch because I don't play the guitar with The Park. I always slotted in at least one MP song at the end of my solo shows because I love the songs and if I think I can put a different spin on them by stripping them back to their essence, then I will. But, as you suggest, it's an honour to have touched so many people over the last ten years, which is why we wanted to have a few Maximo Park birthday party concerts towards the end of the year.
New solo album, A Certain Trigger 10th anniversary tour; is the end for Maximo Park?
No, why would it be?!
And finally, you can only listen to one song for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
A long one - maybe Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band by Terry Riley, which is 20mins long, or Discreet Music by Brian Eno. Something that wouldn't drive me round the bend after a while.