Some of my more rugged friends often ask me what my problem with distorted guitars is. Bristling at the implied slight on my manhood as well as on my taste, I respond that I have no problem at all with distorted guitars. My problem is with the legions of testosterone-addled punk-wanabees who think that turning up their overdrive knobs to 11 will mask their utter lack of melodic inspiration. Distorted guitars are like concrete—exhilarating on the rare occasions when they are used well, dreadful when they are not.
And then I point to Exhibit A—the 2005 debut album by British band Maxïmo Park, titled A Certain Trigger. Twelve coruscating shards of overdriven melody, plus one rather incongruous but nonetheless brilliant keyboard throb all adding up to a perfect crystal of an album, the best of the year by a million miles.
Nor was I the only one smitten, such that the band spent the next two years touring the world with their famously energetic live show. And while the opening tracks of their new album, Our Earthly Pleasures, make it abundantly clear that all their globetrotting has done nothing to take the edge off the band’s guitars or singer Paul Smith’s distinctive northern delivery, it becomes apparent that their horizons have broadened.
Three tracks in, the overdrive is suddenly turned right down for the ultra melodic “Books from Boxes,” which then gives way to the piano chords of “Russian Literature.” And piano is even more prominent in the opening bars of “Your Urge,” before disappearing beneath a monumental concrete slab of a chorus. You can certainly see where the singer was coming from when he described Our Earthly Pleasures as a cross between the Smiths and Smashing Pumpkins.
It is fair to say that the band’s lyrics are not always so aptly phrased. Like Morrissey, songwriter Paul Smith’s laudable desire to avoid cliché sometimes leads to some clumsy fumbles with a thesaurus that is just a bit too big for him. Witness “I think about the three of us. I wonder how we tessellate.” Still, it’s refreshing to encounter a pop star who picked something up in math class—unlike the hapless young lady in the excellent “A Fortnight’s Time” who shocks Smith with her ignorance of times tables.
Such compelling details abound in Smith’s fragmentary tales of endless one-night-stands and doomed between-show romances, and for every verbal faux pas there is a snatch of genuine poetry, none better than the album’s fragile conclusion: “I love the tiny veins on your back/ They remind me of the way that porcelain cracks.” Who cares if such a vivid image doesn’t quite rhyme?
It is true that there is no single track on Our Earthly Pleasures quite as magnificent as “Apply Some Pressure” or “Going Missing” from the first album, but the overall standard remains extremely high. Even the weakest track, “Karaoke Plays,” has its moments. It seems that my manhood is—ahem—in very safe hands.
Maxïmo Park is playing at Great Scott in Boston on July 11th.