Paul Smith - Margins
Arguably the one concern when a lead singer approaches a solo project, as opposed to a drummer or guitarist, is to ensure that the results don’t sound exactly just like the work with their band; it’s probably even worse for someone like Paul Smith whose unmistakable vocals come with their defiant Northern edge. Fortunately he seems to have been aware of the potential similarity and his debut solo album, Margins, is a much more intimate and mellow affair than any of the Maxïmo Park LPs. Unfortunately, however, in discarding the upbeat tempos and angular guitars so prevalent in Maxïmo Park’s efforts, he seems to have lost that memorable touch that would have transformed Margins into something great.
That’s not to say that the album is an unlistenable mess; it’s actually the complete opposite. Smith’s confidence with experimenting with melodies and instruments combined with his subtle soothing vocals, not always especially apparent with Maxïmo Park, make Margins a very listenable album. Tracks such as ‘Alone, I Would’ve Dropped’ and closing track ‘Pinball’ could quite easily lull an agitated baby to sleep, but you would be hard pushed to recall any of the tracks once the album finishes spinning.
The album certainly gets off to a stronger start than it finishes on: pick of the bunch is the delicately balanced ‘Improvement / Denouement’ with Smith showcasing a supreme control of dynamics as the track has two very definite sides of dark and light. It’s also the part of the album that contains the most Maxïmo-esque tracks with both ‘The Crush And The Shatter’ and ‘Strange Friction’ containing the kind of simple but infectiously catchy choruses that the band have become known for. It’s almost as if Smith uses the starting four tracks to ease fans into his different solo sound where the emphasis is on acoustics and intimate ballads, rather than big riffs and even bigger anthems, as the album definitely segue ways into something different around ‘While You’re In The Bath’.
Margins isn’t without its highlights during the middle and latter sections – ‘I Wonder If’ is a corker which perfectly showcases the finger-picking guitar style that Smith learned for the album and is subtly un-nerving but strangely beautiful – but they do start to become fewer and farther between. It’s probably not helped by the fact that the acoustic backgrounds bring the lyrics into the forefront and while Smith is far from a terrible songwriter, the tales woven aren’t strong enough on their own to make you want to re-listen like you would re-read a classic book. At times, it feels like Smith is just singing about what comes into his head such as on ‘This Heat’ – “Sharp contrast / Clumps of whitened grass by the marsh / Frost in the joints / Paving takes on the look of boiled sweets” – and with the acoustic background always pleasant but never truly memorable, the tracks just tend to wash over you.
Perhaps that’s the point though with Margins’ intimate musings more suited to a quiet night in than a sweaty dancefloor. It’s certainly far from a shocker and, for anyone who listened to it, a much superior album than Maxïmo Park guitarist Duncan James’ solo effort. Arguably though, the most telling aspect of Margins is that the over-riding urge you’re left with is a taste for a fourth Maxïmo Park album rather than a sophomore Paul Smith solo outing.