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.

August Reviews – Jonathan Wilson, Bombay Bicycle Club and Steve Mason & Dennis Bovell

It’s all picking up again now, after the dreaded summer lull. The beefy September releases are popping up and there’s plenty to like about August too. In addition to these, there’s the mighty fine debut from I Break Horses forthcoming on Bella Union and I can tell you now that both The Rapture and Laura Marling have fine albums on the way in September, Marling in particular having taken another massive leap between albums. Anyway, let’s do these three splendid releases, shall we?

JONATHAN WILSON – ‘Gentle Spirit’ (BELLA UNION)

Jonathon-Wilson-Gentle-Spirit

Warm, fuzzy and unashamedly long, this gloriously languid debut solo outing puffs into view seemingly all the way from the late Sixties, with little interest in breaking new ground. Wilson has learnt his craft impeccably, having previously played for Elvis Costello, Jenny Lewis and Jackson Browne amongst others, and ‘Gentle Spirit’ serves to unleash his own voice, even if it is a slightly stoned whisper. Recorded sporadically over a long period of time, and very audibly unhurried, the title and pace of the album suggest that we could all do with taking stock once in a while, hazy guitar lines lulling the listener into a state of serene bliss. ‘Can We Really Party Today?‘ aches beautifully over almost seven minutes, gently sashaying through the verses, before shifting down several gears for the sombre chorus.

While the lyrics may be a little platitudinous at times – "When it’s all said and done, we are just dust on the horizon" from ‘Natural Rhapsody’ – on occasion a little simplicity and sincerity is all we need. Recorded to analogue tape, the sound is warm and earthy, Wilson professing that he envisages it as a double album designed for vinyl. As he suggests on album closer ‘Valley Of The Silver Moon’, his music is out of step with current trends. All of which is not to say that ‘Gentle Spirit’ is diluted pastiche; everything here is gorgeously sung and this woozy, gently uplifting collection of songs is pretty close to perfect.

Continue reading “August Reviews – Jonathan Wilson, Bombay Bicycle Club and Steve Mason & Dennis Bovell”

8. Steve Mason–Boys Outside

Best of 2010Although 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.

Steve Mason Boys Outside

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.

A Week With… 16. Steve Mason – Boys Outside

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’ has the capacity to be one of the stand out releases of 2010. I truly cannot get enough of this record at the moment and, while including it in the ‘A Week With’ series betrays the original principles of the feature somewhat, this week in particular has found me playing it almost daily.

Steve Mason Boys Outside

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 been around for a little while now, but loses none of its majesty in the context of the album. A further track with more than a fleeting echo of his former band, it’s 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.

Steve Mason

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.

2010 inverted