Last Saturday, I could have joined the rest of my small countryside village in celebrating the arrival of the Olympic torch on its relay around Great Britain. Instead, I made the short journey to Newcastle to bear witness to another once in a lifetime event - local heroes Maximo Park breaking the world record for the number of in-store record shop performances in a single day! Ok, the appeal wasn't quite so universal as the beacon of the world's greatest sporting event turning up on your doorstep, but the 'Maximo marathon' nevertheless proved a fine way to pass the afternoon.
On the main leg of their run, the Geordie quintet checked-in to three of the city's finest independents - RPM, Reflex and Beatdown Records - having visited Stockton's Sound It Out Records and Sunderland's Hot Rats earlier in the day. Each venue was afforded roughly half an hour of music, after which the band would sign autographs, pack up and be followed across the town by an assembly of fans, most of whom turned up to all three appearances.
Crammed down back alleys and among CD racks, they delivered stripped down sets largely dedicated to new album The National Health, with one or two old favourites tagged on at the end for good measure. A real return to form following disappointing third effort Quicken The Heart, the new record essentially marks a retreat to the formula which worked so well in the earlier stages of their career. Packed with direct hooks and dynamic choruses, the majority of its songs hold a distinctly electric aesthetic, although that didn't stop them from translating well in this more sparse format. That success was largely down to frontman Paul Smith, who carried the more upbeat numbers with his gratuitous northern charm and natural entertainer's instinct. You would, for example, expect the likes of 'Write This Down,' 'Reluctant Love' and 'The Undercurrents' to sound diminished bereft of their usual volume, but Smith's voice provided a sturdy backbone from which they were able to excel.
The most interesting moments, however, came when they altered that approach, notably with current single 'Hips And Lips,' which was given an outing at both RPM and Beatdown. Normally a rocker rife with energy and distortion, here it was afforded special treatment and rearranged into a tender piano ballad. Perfectly suited to its new intimate settings, it added a welcome dose of subtlety to the band's canon, with the whispered sub-choruses and sultry sexy tones reminiscent of Pulp at their most enticing. Along with the classic 'Going Missing,' it was heads and shoulders above everything else they played, but perhaps more importantly it also proved that Smith and co. have far more up their sleeve than the blood pumping indie rock anthems for which they're known.
Aside from that, though, these three appearances were an exhibition of Maximo Park doing what Maximo Park do best, having recovered both their vigour and their confidence. The strength and consistency of the new record was in full evidence, with all but a handful of the new songs aired and received with great enthusiasm by the local hardcore. A thoroughly worthwhile exercise for all involved, it was not only the sound of a band getting back on track, but also one breaking new ground - and records - along the way.