When Sunderland, England’s The Futureheads put out their well-received debut album a year ago, you had to think it would only be a matter of time before a band from Newcastle followed suit. After all, the two neighboring Northeastern cities have had a long-standing rivalry in football, so why not in music as well? The relationship between Tynesiders Maximo Park and Wearsiders The Futureheads, though, will probably far less acrimonious than their respective Premier League franchises. After all, both bands represent some of the best young guitar rock the UK has to offer.
As with practically every other new British rock band out there, Maximo Park are very heavily influenced by early XTC, Gang of Four’s Entertainment!, and The Jam, but unlike The Futureheads, who cleverly combine those sounds with the creative use of four-part harmony vocals and a very tightly-wound live sound that evokes The Buzzcocks, Maximo Park is considerably more simple and direct, substituting tetchy energy for slyly contagious melodies and introspective lyrical themes.
That Maximo Mark has been able to quickly make a name for themselves is hardly a surprise, but to many, their signing to Warp Records is. However, despite the label’s propensity for putting out cutting-edge electronic music by the likes of Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Prefuse 73, Warp also was behind the release of such classic Pulp singles as “Babies” and “Razzmatazz”, and judging by their quick signing of Maximo Park, they sense a similarity in lead singer Paul Smith to that of the inimitable Jarvis Cocker. And rightfully so, too, as the frontman dominates A Certain Trigger. What Smith lacks in a singing voice, he makes up for in eloquence.
“You’ve left your home town, where you grew up/ I hadn’t noticed how your accent had changed,” sings Smith, in his charmingly warm Geordie accent on “Signal and Sign”, a song that dares to do something a bit different from the rest of their peers, Lukas Wooler’s snappy organ accents and the band’s understated breakdowns counterbalancing the pulsating choruses nicely. The soaring “Graffiti” has Smith enigmatically asking his female companion, “I’ll do graffiti if you sing to me in French,” adding, “What are we doing here if romance isn’t dead?” The lovely “The Coast is Always Changing” is driven by some very versatile guitar playing by Duncan Lloyd and an organ melody that bears a strong similarity to Hot Hot Heat, as Smith tosses in asides clever enough to make Pulp fans take note (“Age makes no difference till you open your mouth”), before delivering the tres literate refrain of, “I am young and I am lost/ You react to my riposte.” The fun, 109 second tune “The Night I Lost My Head” is deeply indebted to Dexy’s Midnight Runners, as the band delivers an ebullient backdrop to Smith’s comic tale: “I spent all night trying to remember your address… Why did we have to meet/ On the night I lost my head?”
The band gives us a hint of what musical direction they might take on their next record on a couple of noteworthy tracks. “Limassol” opens with a stark synth intro that continues after the rest of the band joins in, while Smith delves a bit deeper into darker themes, shifting from rosy-eyed romantic to full-on stalker (“Saw the lights on in your window/ Even though they’d said you’d gone “). “Acrobat” is even more synth dominated, as Smith’s devotion to Pulp comes to a head, but instead of coming off like a cheap imitation, the similarity to the sorely-missed Pulp is arresting, from the languid sequenced track, to the simple, chiming guitar melodies, to Smith’s spoken word delivery, to his confessional lyrics (“My foot nearly brushes your leg, I cant draw it away, I cant push it forward, it lies stranded”), to the plaintive chorus.
Still, as fascinating as “Acrobat” is, A Certain Trigger remains a great little guitar rock record, and if there’s one song that’s going to break this band, it’ll be “Apply Some Pressure” a song that fits neatly between Bloc Party’s “Banquet” and The Futureheads’ “Decent Days and Nights”, Lloyd’s insistent guitar work and Wooler’s synth propelled by Tom English’s edgy beats, as Smith delivers his best vocal turn on the album.
There are a few moments where Smith goes from being a clever Jarvis Cocker devotee to just another young kid spewing silly emo melodrama (“I sleep with my hands across my chest/ And I dream of you with someone else”), but it’s during those weaker lyrical moments that the quintet’s skill as a band becomes evident, as it’s easy to tell these boys are not just another collection of minimally talented scenesters. A Certain Trigger is a sneaky little album, its one big similarity to The Futureheads being that it needs to live in your CD player or iPod for a while, but when it gets its hooks in you, it’s impossible to dislike. They’re definitely no Franz Ferdinand or Bloc Party (yet), but Maximo Park are still a fine second tier band, one who proves there’s more to Newcastle rock music than just The Animals, Prefab Sprout, and Jimmy Nail.