Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Maxïmo Park's 'The National Health' Feels Darn Good To Me -- Album Review

Album Review

Maxïmo Park
The National Health

Whenever I see a rave review of an album by an artist I've never heard of--or perhaps just never been overly impressed by--I'm intrigued, but also rather skeptical.

Although mainstream popularity, especially in an age of ever more segmented masses, is not necessarily a barometer of quality, I often can't help but think--antiquated as the reasoning may be--"if this is so good, why is it so far under the radar?"

In the case of Maxïmo Park, it also doesn't help that as of this writing, the British band's fourth studio album, The National Health--which came out last week in England and Europe--hasn't officially been released in America. You can't download it through iTunes or Amazon, and to buy the CD through Amazon.com currently entails paying a steep import price of $23.58 (you can get it for a bit less through the marketplace sellers, for roughly what I paid through Amazon.co.uk, where it runs about $17 including shipping to the U.S.).

Especially if you are unfamiliar with Maxïmo Park, I don't blame you for being a bit cynical about the praise I'm bestowing on The National Health. Even in England, where the Newcastle-bred band is somewhat popular but far from mega-stars, the album has received mixed reviews--for every rave one I've seen, there has also been a rather lukewarm notice.

Certainly, there's no guarantee or even expectation that you will enjoy this album as much as I do. While Maxïmo Park's 2005 debut A Certain Trigger remains my favorite album of the '00s, their two subsequent albums--though not terrible by any means--were considerable stepdowns in quality.

The band has not released a new disc since 2009's Quicken the Heart, and with rather little that excites me in terms of new rock 'n roll these days I have very much been looking forward to The National Health, hoping it would represent a return to form. But lest you think this is merely an over-anticipatory and resultingly excessive review, I think I've been rather candid in expressing my relative disappointment in the latest releases by longtime favorites such as Alejandro Escovedo, Garbage, R.E.M. and Radiohead.

Of 16 albums I've rated on this blog over the past few years, I've only given other one--Pictures by the Len Price 3--a full @@@@@. So believe me, I was hesitant to give this one my top rating, for in doing so I don't mean to suggest that it rivals Sgt. Pepper's, Who's Next, Born to Run, etc. in terms of heft and depth.

But in being a thoroughly delightful listen, again and again, I really do think Maxïmo Park's The National Health is that good. There hasn't been an album released in 2012 that I've liked any more.

Produced by Gil Norton, who has notably worked with The Pixies and Foo Fighters among others,
The National Health does offer a bit of commentary on the state of our world, something I often rue as sorely lacking. But I like it much more simply because song after song sounds good--it's guitar-driven rock that's a bit left of straightforward, with strong vocals by Paul Smith--rather than having yet digested any particularly sage or forceful insights about the global financial crisis or its repercussions.

The album's title song opens by suggesting that "England is ill and it is not alone," but the the powerful angularity of Maximo's music speaks to me as much as the lyrics, and "Hips and Lips," "The Undercurrents" and "Write This Down" do not suffer because they deal with interpersonal relationships rather than larger crises.

There really isn't a bad song on The National Health, and several standouts. But realizing that nothing I can say will truly convey why I like the album so much, fortunately I can share the preview below that allows you to hear at least a minute of all of the songs (as well as an audio-only YouTube playlist underneath that has full versions of seven songs, though a couple are live acoustic versions. You can also find all Maxïmo Park albums, including the new one, on Spotify).

So give it a listen--it may take a few to catch on--and see if you like what you hear. I very much do and am happy to know that Maxïmo Park remains, for me, a relatively rarity: a recent rock band very much worth paying attention to. They're booked for a Chicago gig at Lincoln Hall in September and yes, I plan to be there.

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