BEST OF 2013: 23. Steve Mason – Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time

Dear reader, please forgive me. I do get it wrong sometimes. This is, after all, only subjective musings on music. When you have seven days to get to know a record that’s been emailed to you as a collection of mp3s, it can, on occasion, just be the wrong seven days. I love writing really gnarly reviews, and one particular person I write for is always delighted when he gets a 3/10 drop into his inbox, but they’re not the ones that haunt you. Nobody plays back a record they thought was total dogshit only to realise it is in fact the Second Coming. Unless it’s ‘The Second Coming’, of course. No, the ones that weigh heavy on the mind are those where you find an album mutates from decent enough to outstanding. Yes, thankfully, it’s rare. But it does happen. And ‘Monkey Minds…’ was one such example. I gave it a 7 out of 10, for Christ’s sake, which doesn’t seem like the most apocalyptic visitation of hellfire one might dish out towards an artist, but it still rankles. More specifically, it’s this bit that bugs me:

“Mason says he doesn’t care what labels, critics or even fans think of this political album, but sometimes misguided tunnel-vision can be rather hubristic.  It’s not the lyrical content that rankles, but eleven self-produced, largely forgettable, shorter tracks surrounding nine fully fleshed-out songs. There’s a 9/10 album in here somewhere waiting to be let out.”

 

I truly believed it at the time. I read it over and over, having truly adored Steve Mason‘s first solo album proper Boys Outside’, and decided it was accurate. But I kept playing it, which was the first sign I might have been a little hasty. Because, ladies and gents, this is a bloody impressive record, no less beautiful than that very special debut and well-realised enough to not need trimming down to appease fidgety attention spans. It would seem the 9/10 album made it out over the course of the last few months. The dubby piano, heart-melting harmonies and swaggering beats that were so key to the majesty of both his work with The Beta Band and ‘Boys Outside’ are all here, but with a neat sense of progress.

This is a far more confident record than its predecessor. It’s angry, too. The shorter pieces which weave in amongst the more sonically familiar tracks are actually at the heart of this record. And THAT is what I didn’t grasp in my early listens. They’re not window dressing and they’re not throwaway – they’re the glue. They allow Mason to tackle topics head on, pulling together a collage of political and philosophical lyrics. ‘Fire’ is an all out assault reflecting on the London Riots but it works all the more powerfully because of ‘More Money More Fire’, a bristling rap precursor on the same subject.

This album is something of a seething call to arms. Disbelief, anger and inspiration mix to potent effect across twenty tracks that should be heard together. It’s a tricky album to capture – and, hey, this is already my second attempt – but it remains riveting. I’m truly glad I persevered with it and I suspect the relationship will only endure. Plenty of people have told me it clicked immediately with them, but don’t be surprised if a little time is required. And, perhaps, don’t mention hubris, eh? Ahem.

BEST OF 2013: 24. Local Natives – Hummingbird

Some records hit the spot with their overall sonic space, rather than individual tracks. A production, a wash of instruments, that is distinctive and consistent, running throughout a collection of songs. ‘High Violet was one such album to have this effect on me back in 2010. I pretty much lived in that album for much of that year and became attuned to its climate. Nothing else sounded quite like it and so I reached for it again and again and again. The love affair prompted by ‘Hummingbird’ hasn’t been as vigorous or all-consuming, but it’s not far off. The sense of tension, largely brought about by the skittering rhythms and pronounced percussive pulses of so many of the songs is really rather addictive.  

 

‘Black Spot’ will delight those with a soft, ahem, spot for the soulful elegance of Jeff Buckley‘s ‘(Sketches for) My Sweetheart The Drunk’, with several moments of emotional release contained therein. Much was made at the time of the album’s release of the impact of having toured with both Arcade Fire and The National. The influence of the latter is perhaps more pronounced, presumably as a result of Aaron Dessner‘s role in the production. The frantic drum patterns will certainly seem familiar, but this is no exercise in pastiche. The piercingly heavy piano sounds throughout are especially striking, not least on ‘Three Months’, which is a true hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck manoeuvre. Lyrically, the album seems to intertwine the passing of vocalist Kelcey Ayer‘s mother and the departure of their bassist just prior to the writing of these songs. The ache is curiously luxurious and easier to wallow in than one might expect. Lines like “I’ve got to go on now, having thought this was your last year” capture a complexity of feeling that is at the forefront of all eleven tracks on ‘Hummingbird’.

The ever-present sensation that these songs could tip over the edge at any point ensures that the rich waves of harmony don’t grate, while the transparently raw grief results in a record with a furious sense of purpose. Things are brought to a close with the shimmering, twitching, glistening beauty of ‘Bowery’ which seems to find some sort of euphoric outpouring in its final minute before laying down to rest. For a record born of such hurt, it’s a hugely involving and often uplifting listen, which has remained near the top of the pile all year. Taken as background listening, I suspect its heft may be diminished. Dig out your headphones and put aside forty-five minutes, why don’t you?