Although much of this album has an insistent throb of one kind or another, it’s the delicate touches that really make it something special. The specks of acoustic guitar dotted through opening track, ‘Understand My Heart’ make my ears prick up each time they go past, despite the really rather magnificent piano shudder on which this fine tune is built dominating proceedings. By the time ‘Am I Just A Man’ has ushered in all kinds of favourable comparisons to prime Beta Band magic, it’s clear that Steve Mason’s ‘Boys Outside’ deserves its position as one of the stand out releases of 2010.
Mason’s voice, pitched in an almost permanently resigned tone, has never sounded better than here, aided by some beautifully crafted songs. The slow-burning, rain on the horizon, brooding opening to ‘The Letter’ is a masterclass in restraint. When the chorus hits, the refrain of “could it be that you don’t love me?” is all the more heartbreaking for the sensitively deployed strings and solitary piano keys floating, spectre-like, in a great blanket of melancholy. It is one of many highlights on the first of Mason’s records to not find him hiding behind a pseudonym or concept. The honesty and openness runs right the way through the lyrics also.
‘Lost And Found’ has more than a fleeting echo of his former band and is another example of glacial piano floating across a drum pattern that wouldn’t be out of place on a laid back modern soul song. It makes for a forceful end to side one and, at the risk of becoming somewhat predictable, I have to urge you towards the vinyl pressing of this tremendous collection. The winding, twitching, roaming bass on some of these songs is beautifully rendered on the larger of the physical formats.
‘I Let Her In’ is perhaps the most starkly brutal observation of a failed relationship on the record, with some hugely affecting lines. “I wake up every morning with a new broken heart” is almost sunny when put alongside “to the children that I never had, here is the love, I was your dad.” It’s a rock and roll cliché that the best music is born out of romantic trials and aching souls, but it’s a cliché that is given further credence by this spellbinding record.
I remember being almost hypnotised by the vocals on initial plays of ‘Dr Baker’, one of the great, early Beta Band tracks. Something about that understated though epic, simple though enthralling vocal performance resonated with many when ‘The Three EPs’ first emerged. That same special feeling occurred when I first heard ‘All Come Down’, which contains a moment where Mason’s voice seems to actually head skywards, soaring quite magnificently across a shimmering, euphoric backdrop that can, in equal parts, make you grin deliriously and blub like an emotionally charged teenager.
The title track has a ridiculously simplistic chorus, built around the refrain “noise outside, boys outside” but it’s up there with ‘The Letter’ as one of the genuinely great songs on ‘Boys Outside’. The drums slowly gather momentum as things develop to an anticipated crescendo around a line telling us that “the things I’ve seen in my life will make you cry” only for the backdrop to fall away, leaving just the beat and Mason’s vocal to quietly, and serenely, bring things to a halt. ‘Hound On My Heel’ offers a hopeful wash of sound to round out the album, even if the lyrics would give the manager of Hallmark a coronary.
If the ramshackle musical collage of the King Biscuit Time project didn’t quite convince you or the squelching dance tones of Black Affair weren’t quite what you were expecting, don’t allow any such dislikes to cloud your judgement when it comes to this record. Whether you were a fan of The Beta Band or not is largely irrelevant. Put simply, if you’re a fan of music, then you really should investigate this outstanding album.