I rarely get to review pop/rock these days, so I was stoked on Provo, Utah’s The National Parks. But I was also worried that this would be another polished band delivering shiny songs made from the detritus left over from the last alt./neo/folk project to try this out (can you tell I’m biased?). But Places [RECORD LABEL NEEDED] is exceptional, taking the anthemic, female-backed choruses from The Arcade Fire, to some of the lyrical grit of Fun., to the rousing hoopla of bands like Third Eye Blind (without the grim outlook). Yes, Places is enthusiastically supported.
On the title track, “Oh-oh’s” start things off. Then Brady Parks kicks in: “In the corner of my mind/ I’ve been thinking of some times/ I took streets, trails, and old, back roads.” The reeling guitar fills in every gap, and Sydney Macfarlane’s backing vocals add texture, but whereas female/male vocal duos is a common trope these days, it’s done here very subtly. “From salty skies/ when I was young,” Brady adds, “to foreign days/ under the sun.” And the bridge goes, “It’s all passing me by.” The never-grow-up angst is couched in wanderlust.
From that moment on, Places never wanes. Every song is good. “At The Heart” stands out because of its pop melody and synth goo reminiscent of TSwift’s Red, an album I find quintessential. Love songs cascade through Places, but they’re not cliché one iota. “We were close/ but grew tired… Driving along to the city lights/ because moving on/ takes so long,” the verse envelopes. Violin sweeps it all together. The synth drums and peppy melodies that normally rub me wrong fit here organically.
Two songs, back-to-back, are amazing. On “Costa Rica”, the Mumford and Sons speed-guitar-to-slow-verse is achieved flawlessly. “When you moved to Costa Rica,” Brady wonders; “did you speak/ or did you hablar?/ Letters to and from Brazil/ they proved we still heart-to-heart.” It’s witty and emotional. Most of the lyrics hold this quality: poetics without too much symbolism, complete images without verbosity.
“Esperanza” follows, and one can’t help but ponder if the two Latin-themed songs are coupled intentionally. But here we have a duet. “For some things, you just gotta fight,” she sings. “I’ve been in the ring too many times,” he replies. Later, she says, “Spin in circles/ let’s be dancers,” and he replies, “When I dance/ it’s with disaster.” For anyone wondering how to properly write a pop love song, here’s your example.
On “Currents”, this cool persists: “Sometimes you are a desert… and I’m an old man, lost/ chasing your mirage.” This band is stuck staring at a summer night from their window; young free-thinkers in a small town dreaming of something bigger. They do this with humility.
Basically, I don’t think they know how good their songs are, and I hope all the accolades this album is sure to generate only encourages The National Parks to keep doing what they do, no need to spill into Top 40. This indie scene needs more of this sensibility.
We need more Places, but for now, let’s just enjoy what we got: a pretty, gracious album from one of my new favorite bands.