Album Reviews

Paul Smith – Margins

(Billingham) UK release date: 11 October 2010

Scissor-kicking Max�mo Park frontman Paul Smith – that bowler-hatted bundle of energy with the distinctively north-eastern brogue – is striking out on his own, even picking up a guitar with relatively impressive results, 10 years after the Newcastle-based band formed.

Moving to reassure fans that the release of Margins doesn’t mean curtains for Max�mo, like Sting disbanding Police to pursue tantric environmentalism, Smith has continued in the same musical mould as his spiky group. Or has he?

Well, no, not exactly. While Margins’ opening salvo, the rather excellent North Atlantic Drift, is very much in the same groove as Max�mo’s sentimental-yet-angular brand of rock, there the parallels end: this is an LP at odds with Smith’s erstwhile livewire approach.

The Crush And The Shatter marks Margins’ true kick-off, it being a lo-fi venture with production values so low as to suggest it was recorded in an empty greenhouse; so low, in fact, that it’s less early Pavement, more original Pavement drummer Gary Young‘s solo efforts. Borderline shambolic, one might say.

Improvement/Denouement, indeed, assures the listener that the amateurish mode is no one-off: similarly pared back, it reverberates like a garage band’s first tentative recordings. Smith’s roguish charm, though, shines through impressively, and a slightly belated element of listenability begins to form.

Strange Friction, similarly, reanimates the protagonist’s widely appreciated poetic stylings, though one is never entirely sure of the exact meaning. Bereft of the Max�mo formula’s polished embrace, Smith’s musings have an unfortunate tendency to seem aloof and inaccessible.

Sticking to his guns regardless, he eventually strikes pay dirt: While You’re In The Bath is so composed as to render the adopted lo-fi principles as virtues rather than vices, and the combination of unwieldy romanticism and delicate picking is a winning one.

This Heat, too, exhibits a perfection of the method; even though Smith’s phrasing is so obscure as to defy comprehension, it’s a genuine standout track and an excellent snapshot of the frontman’s lesser seen side.

Mixed results follow into the album’s second half. I Drew You Sleeping’s jangly touches and smart turns of phrase remind of Jarvis Cocker‘s more reflective moments on Further Complications; the spoken word tendencies of Alone, I Would’ve Dropped revive the love-hate divisiveness of Max�mo Park’s Acrobat; Dare Not Dive could be a Preston School Of Industry song – instantly gratifying, but ultimately forgettable.

And, as you may expect from an album written and assembled over the course of four long years, Margins labours to establish cohesion. For every Our Lady Of Lourdes – an echoing, atmospheric indie cut – there is an I Wonder If or The Tingles; plodding numbers one doubts would make the grade for a Max�mo-branded release.

Such an observation may be a little unfair – this is, after all, the sound of Paul Smith freed of his band and label obligations – but the fact remains that Margins, while an interesting insight into a character, is a frustratingly hit-and-miss affair.

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Paul Smith & Peter Brewis – Frozen By Sight
Paul Smith – Margins