Steve Mason - a buyer's guide or something

Image from The Guardian

On Monday of this week, Steve Mason released an album entitled "Boys Outside", the first to be released under his own name, but by no means his first "solo album". Instantly it became the sort of album which, as soon as it's finished, I find that I've no choice but to simply hit "play" again. Already I know that each repeat listen will unveil new layers, new things to care about. At the moment, though, I feel as though I've just scratched the surface. I'm going to reserve proper judgement until I've been living with it for months, but even on the surface, this thing's very special indeed.

Well, of course it is. It's Steve Mason. I've been a fan of his work for about six years now. So, as a tribute and a celebration of Boys Outside, for what might well be the first time, I'm going to compile a "definitive buyer's guide" of his work. I place "definitive" between the old inverted commas because who the hell am I to judge?

We'll start, as is usually the case, from the beginning:

The Beta Band - The Three EPs (1998)

Often mistaken as their "debut", but the clues in the title. This isn't so much an album as a collection of the first three EPs as recorded by The Beta Band: Champion Verses (1997), The Patty Patty Sound (1998) and Los Amigos del Beta Bandidos (1998). Each EP contains four songs, and each feels like a seperate unified work. Be that as it may, over twelve songs there's a listening experience which feels cohesive and whole, in no way fragmented. This to me suggests a unity of vision which was inherent right from the outset.

Marvel as I (almost) speak of opener "Dry The Rain" without mentioning its inclusion in High Fidelity! You see, this is one of the most beautiful songs as ever recorded by any band, ever. It deserves to be so much more than "the song from High Fidelity". As a song, it's like a slowly opening curtain not just for this collection of songs, but also for the entire idiosyncratic comforting little world this band inhabits. Those dusty drum scratches and languid guitar chords slowly lull you into a very certain way of thinking, of viewing the world: one that's melancholic, slightly strange, but also wonderful in its languid pace.

It's a song of two halves. The first is soothing, but deceptively so - beyond these sweet lazily strummed chords and campfire choruses lies a world in which one is "choking on the vitamin tablets the doctor gave in the hope of saving me". However, midway through, it's as though the clouds have parted, as though a window has opened: someone's switched a light on, as the drums take on an uplifting hip-hop bent, the acoustic guitar's switched for an electric and, later, joyous trumpets join the mix. "If there's something inside that you want to say, say it out loud it will be OK". As a friend of mine once commented, there's always something to love in songs that tell you that things will be OK. And he was right.

"Dry The Rain" fades out, and it is, at this point, important to remember that we're but one song into a twelve track collection. They're just getting started. "I Know" has a scratchy, old-school hip-hop feel to it and comes across like a DJ Shadow who spent more time on the beach than he did in gloomy second hand record shops. "B+A" is an instrumental piece with a simple riff played over a reversed tape-loop. Pretty hypnotic stuff, but once the song takes off (and this song takes off), it rocks. Ho, does it rock. It's loose with its crashing cymbals and wordless chanting, but there's a vibrancy and dynamism which affords the piece with an urgency I wouldn't hesistate to describe as "life-affirming". 

"Dogs Got a Bone" ends the first EP in a wonderfully laid-back manner and could act as evidence in a case for the melodica as the perfect cure for stress and anxiety. Few instruments are more evocative of good times, I find.

The second set of songs, if the collection's treated as the EP compilation that it is, represents my favourite of the Three EPs. "Inner Meet Me" opens with strange echoing bird song and percussive bursts before the chant-like refrain comes into play, soon to be joined by the simplest of two-chord guitar strums. This song boasts an addictive urbane energy which, by the time the chorus announces itself, is enough to induce gratuitous strutting. The first time I saw them they opened with this piece. After this, they proceeded to command.

Next comes "The House Song", in which a series of looped vocal tracks are layered upon each other before a thumping bass drum and a downright funky bassline takes the song - and, indeed, the album - into marvellously hedonistic territories. Midway through Steve cuts in with what sounds like a Japanese rap - pretty bizarre, but this is, after all, The Beta Band - before we return once again to the groove - the sort of groove which, one feels, could happily go on forever. "Monolith" is a strange sound collage which manages to cram every ounce of atmosphere and otherworldliness of The Avalanches into just fifteen minutes. It feels like the sweetest insanity possible. Finally for this second EP comes "She's The One", easily my favourite of every song The Beta Band ever recorded. The first half combines a nocturnal acoustic strum with a surreal stream of consciousness quasi-rap before, as Beta Band songs tend to do, the second half takes us into another dimension entirely. With just four chords they achieve a transcendence which only the best of music makes possible.

The final EP in this collection is, perhaps, the weakest. Well, anything would have difficulty in following that which just preceded. By far it's the most melancholy collection of the bunch, with "Push It Out" and "It's Over" achieving a desolate jazzy looseness - a sound to which this band would return to some extent for their debut album proper. "Dr. Baker" was, at one point, familiar to all, appearing as it did in Trigger Happy TV. It's a beautiful little piece, reminiscent of Syd Barrett at his saddest, most disjointed. Think "Jugland Blues" combined with the second half of "Bike" as covered by Radiohead.

"Needles In My Eyes" closes the collection on a deceptively uplifting elegiac note and, at seventy six minutes and with the more muted material appearing towards the end, perhaps this collection is too much to take in one sitting. Perhaps it's best treated for what it is - a compilation of three stand-alone EPs. It acts, though, as an ideal entry point for those with anything approaching an interest in either The Beta Band or the work of Steve Mason.

The Beta Band - s/t (1999)

This eponymous offering represents their debut album proper. Steve Mason infamously described it as a "crock of shit" in a contemporary NME interview. Something about "half songs with jams in the middle", I think he said. Well, he couldn't have been more wrong. In terms of lyrical themes, bredth of style and song arrangements, this is an album of remarkable ambition and devastating poignancy. It might well be flawed, but it'll likely be one of the strangest albums you'll ever hear.

Opening "The Beta Band Rap" tells the story so far of the band. Reprasentative, perhaps, of their idiosyncratic attitude towards composition or, more likely, their supremely diverse range of influences, the song courses through three completely different styles in less than five minutes. Starting with a chirpy syrupy fifties choral sort of sound - think "Mr. Sandman" - the song soon morphs into a narcotic hip-hop mumble before shifting once again into a Chuck Berry rock'n'roll outro to take us to its juddering conclusion. Scene duly set, mood effectively established, enter "It's Not Too Beautiful". Containing a brooding chugging guitar riff which was totally stolen by Eminem for his "Lose Yourself", this song exudes a very real sense of unease. All cohesion is lost completely come the chorus - where a spooky, sinister string loop (from Disney's "The Black Hole", no less!) is coupled with a pair of layered vocal refrains - "It's not too beautiful now" is slurred over a barely audible "every time I lose my mind I bombom bom bom bombom". Something doesn't quite feel right.

These first two tracks induce a feeling that one is slowly losing their grasp on their sanity. The brilliant "Round The Bend" continues this theme. On the surface it sounds like the sort of jaunty folk-rock that the likes of Gorky's Zygotic Mynci were, at the time, producing quite marvellously. To listen to the lyrics, though, it becomes clear that we're in the company of a most unhealthy mind. Speaking of being ninety degrees to the rest of the world ("Not a lot of fun you can take it from me"), there's also talk of not wanting to see anyone, (not even your best friend), and of disappearing and never being bothered ever again. Amongst this are discussions of the relative merits of various Beach Boys albums ("Wild Honey - not the best album but it's still pretty good.") All told, these are the restless ramblings of a seriously ill-at-ease mind - one that feels completely at odds with everyone and everything. One that doesn't want to be bothered. Steve Mason would lately make public his struggles with depression. However, we didn't need to know this for this particular song to have a devastating impact.

The remainder of the album dabbles in an extraordinary array of styles and genres. In "Dance O'er The Border" we've fractured, unhinged Paul's Boutique style hip-hop, "Number 15" is a sort of sun-drenched trip-hop, whereas "Smiling" is the sort of joyous big-beat dance song that, were it not for the high-pitched speeded-up vocals, could have been a club hit, of sorts. The final two tracks, brooding epic "The Hard One" and the elegiac "The Cow's Wrong", are a return to the dark, loose, almost jazzy feel briefly visited towards the end of the Three EPs collection.

At times this album is frustratingly obtuse - and truly there are moments when it feels as though they're taking the piss. However, it's worth persevering - there's very real depth here, and some of the strangest songs to have ever been recorded. Early indications that "troubled genius" would soon be an apt description.

King Biscuit Time - No Style (2000)

Steve Mason's first widely-available solo release - combining four new songs with the "Sings Nelly Foggit's Blues in 'Me And The Pharaohs'" EP as was first released in 1999. For this it's worth paying any amount of money as it contains a certain little song called "I Walk The Earth". This vibrant, uplifting piece has a very real movement to it and contains what is perhaps the best chorus Mr. Mason would ever write. "Catchy" doesn't even begin to describe it. 

The seven remaining songs are of interest beyond that of completists, but often feel like half-baked ideas and experiments rather than fully-formed works. Interestingly, though, his Fife/Fence Collective roots would never shine stronger than on such quasi-ambience as "Little White" and on such madness as "Eye O' The Dug".

This release, though, is fascinating in that it hints slightly as to where he would go next. In "Fatheriver" and "Niggling Discrepency", we can see that the cold electronic roots of 2008's The Black Affair run pretty deep. Indeed, the vocal rants of the former would be partially revisited in the closing track of said album. A curio indeed.

The Beta Band - Hot Shots II (2001)

Their masterpiece. There once was a point in my life where, every single night, I would put this on at a slight volume in order to help me drift away. So enticingly hazy and languid are these compositions that I was usually gone by the fourth track - called, quite fittingly, "Gone". It soon got to be the case that I simply couldn't sleep without the soothing allure of this album. Guess you could say that, for a while, I depended upon it.

Sustained over ten perfect tracks is a wonderfully chilled nocturnal feel - it creates an aural universe which one doesn't want to leave. It also, of course, contains some of their finest and most beloved of songs. "Squares", unfortunately released at the same time as an I Monster song which invoked exactly the same sample; and "Broke". Both would eventually become live favourites. In their recorded form they're comparatively muted, but were they granted the fireworks inherent in their live incarnations, they'd only break the perfect dusty-late night feel otherwise achieved.

I'd identify "Dragon" as my personal favourite, though. Along with "Al Sharpe's" gregorian chant denouncement of idiot politics and "Life's" painful assessment of pointless cycles of violence, "Dragon" contains some of the most overtly political lyrics on the album: "How the west was won/It's a lie, but it's made to sound like fun" is chanted over an ominous drone - desolation, inevitability - this is a dark place indeed.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. I don't think I've got the old synesthesia, but I defy anyone to describe the drums in "Quiet" as anything other than "delicious". And the closing mini-epic "Eclipse" - well, it might be one big joke, complete with a punchline ("so no pizza for them"), but somewhere in this campfire strum might lie the meaning of life, the universe and everything. The whole "people with the answers/people with the questions" thing I also happen to find utterly adorable.

The most poignant moment, though, would prove to be in the aforementioned "Gone". "Will you think of me when I'm gone?" is the plaintive croon over the muted sorrowful guitar and piano chords. With this band now sadly departed, my answer is a pained "yes. Every day."

The Beta Band - Heroes To Zeroes (2004)

If treated as an album by The Beta Band, this one will disappoint. Such as it did for me, when I first approached it having binged for endless months on all that had come before. It's only recently that I've been able to appreciate it for what it truly is - a collection of solid, brilliant songwriting - four brilliant musicians very much in their prime, playing with love, with finality.

In "Lion Thief" and "Space Beatle", we have what feels almost like filler. That said, though, lesser bands would kill for that which amounts to "filler" for these guys. And that which lies beyond more than makes up.

In "Assessment" you have what may amount to the definitve Beta Band statement. It's all there - the chiming, driving riff, the creative use of samples, the propulsive drums and the uplifting second half which raises the song to another plane entirely - complete with trumpets! Similar things can be said of "Out-Side" -  a powerful surge of a call-to-arms which contains perhaps the best deployment of a dogs-bark since Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealing" and the kind of dreamy meandering coda for which we came to love these guys.

This album will always be worth owning for those two songs alone. However, by quite a degree the main event will always be "Simple" - a soaring rock epic drenched in strings in which they seem to predict their own demise. "I tried to do my own thing by the trouble with your own thing is you end up on your own" sings Steve, before the music takes a step-back and he is, indeed, left alone. He would later hint that it was his erratic behaviour - as well as his increasingly political agenda, that served to break apart the band. Once again, the song matures over the years and takes on a whole new life - not to mention a whole new level of poignancy.

It was to be their last album and will, by process of elimination alone, always perhaps be viewed as their weakest. Should they ever reform, however, I imagine that in the live environment these songs would finally be greeted with the love they've always deserved.

The Beta Band - The Best of The Beta Band (Music)

The "Music" in the title is there because it was also possible to buy a DVD collection called "Film", which contained all of their videos to date. Unusually for a "best-of" collection, as well as offering all manner of joys for the newcomer, it's also utterly essential for the hardcore fan.

A two disc collection. With inevitable omissions, the first disc contains strong cuts from all of their releases to date (including an edited version of "Smiling" which is just begging to be dropped into a DJ set) as well as standalone single "To You Alone" - worth the price of entry alone.

It's the second disc, though, which offers the most joy for long-term fans and newcomers alike. A live recording from their last ever show, it acts as a reminder that, whilst they enthralled on record, live, they dominated. Most of the songs take on an entirely new light in the live setting. Opener "It's Not Too Beautiful", regrettably the only selection from their eponymous album, sounds dangerously loose and even more deranged when played live. "Squares" boasts a long, mercurial spaced-out guitar solo whereas "Dr. Baker", played at three times the speed and in a higher key, sounds like a different song entirely.

"Broke" and "The House Song", though, offer the most fireworks. Both end in elaborate drum solos - dualistic in "Broke" it's impressive enough, but "The House Song" ends with all four members taking to percussion - a tumultuous pneumatic dangerous wall of blistering sound played with a desperate intensity fitting for what would prove to be the last song they'd ever play live.

King Biscuit Time - Black Gold (2006)

Out of the ashes of The Beta Band came a number of musical projects. Whilst it was lovely to see the resurgence of Lone Pigeon fronting The Aliens, for me the continued work of Steve Mason has always been of the greatest interest. This, his first release since the split of 2004, was so long awaited that, initially, failing to live up to my immense anticipation, it could do nothing but disappoint. Over the years, though, it's grown and grown to the point that I now recognise it for what it is - exactly what I always wanted for it to be.

With it being apparent that his political agenda was a factor in his previous band's split, it was perhaps to be expected that his first solo album would open with the most overtly political song he'd ever written. "C I Am 15" is a dancehall Bush-baiting smash, with the war-mongering puppet idiot denounced with such rhetoric as "I've got friends in places that I can't spell". Towards the end, Topcat spits a rap which serves to hammer home the point rather explicitly - an altogether brash yet energising opening to the album.

The best moments, though, would be those written in a more personal vein. "Impossible Ride" I'd readily identify as one of the finest songs of his career. An arrangement of strange mechanical percussion and washes of organ and melodica create an almost Zen-like ambiance over which a heartbroken sounding Mason desperately seeks resolution with a woman: "If you think it's impossible that we're through," he pleads, before detailing the extreme lengths to which he'd go just to ensure that "I can be we". Like a lot of songs in his canon, if sampled in the right frame of mind, it can be devastating.

I caught him live sometime before the albums release supporting I Am Kloot in Manchester. Had I known that this appearence as King Biscuit Time would be a rare appearence indeed (the tour in support of the album would be cancelled as Mason mysteriously "disappeared") - well, I don't know. Perhaps I'd've treated it as something approaching a religious experience. He'd probably hate to be treated in such a way, but I can't help the impact his music's had on me, can I?

Live, these songs had an energy and a groove not quite lacking on the album, but it was such to suggest that his strengths lie more in live performance than in recording. He also played two Beta Band songs acoustically ("Dr. Baker" and "Simple") and closed with "I Walk The Earth" from the No Style EP. For this last one, he even had something amounting to a dance routine.

This album now seems pretty hard to get hold of. It's about £25 second hand on Amazon, £11.50 (and rising) on eBay and doesn't seem to have been released digitally. Perhaps it's destined to become one of those "lost albums"? If so, make efforts to hear it as soon as possible. That way, you can say that you've been there from the start.

The Black Affair - Pleasure Pressure Point (2008)

If he continues to write, record and release music for decades to come (and, dear god, I really hope that he does), this, I feel, will always be viewed as a true oddity. A shame really, as whilst stylistically it may differ from everything which came before, at the same time the quality of the song-writing is as strong as ever.

I remember various statements at the time being made to the effect that, in Japan, he'd undergone some kind of operation which allowed for him to see the world from a girl's point of view. This music represented the fruits of this new found perspective.

Overall its mood is dark and claustraphobic. And, in a move which must have upset a lot of fans, there's not a guitar in sight. Rather, all songs are arranged for synth and drum machine. Live, they apparently performed as a duo - Steve on vocals accompanied by a bassist and, presumably, some kind of laptop. For the first time in his career, he'd crafted an album with which it was possible to dance to every single song.

Of course, "to dance" is quite a loose verb. Luckily, Steve seemingly took it upon himself to cater for every style he could think of - at least in a club setting. The opening four tracks are grimy, sleazy, filthy - perfect, then, for lusty writhing and grinding. "Japanese Happening" is a propulsive industrial drone of a song - the sort for which leaning against a wall, arms folded, pouting, nodding head - would readily constitute as "dancing". "Will She Come" is the "slowy" - for that close, slow dance towards the end of the evening. It's always reminded me of lounging in the sun at a poolside - a looming white tower of a Miami hotel in the background.

There are, though, the sort of songs which can induce the moving, the grooving, and the shaking in the most joyous way possible. "Tak! Attack!" and "Mute Me", coupled with strobe lightings, could get a whole room jumping and shouting along to the choruses. My favourite, though, always has been and always will be "Sweet". With an uplifting, driving bassline and a vocoder chorus which sounds a lot like the "keep away from the guy with the funny eye" song from Brasseye, this track is every bit as uplifting as any of the finest Beta Band cuts. The ending, too, provides the sort of ambient washes in which it's possible, should you try hard enough, to lose yourself - as was possible with certain King Biscuit Time songs. Initially ill-at-ease with this new sound, it was "Sweet" which eventually made me come round to the idea of The Black Affair. It simply couldn't be anyone else.

Regrettably, I never got to see any of this live. I tried. Ho, I tried. We even had him booked to play at a festival in which we had a say in the lineup, at one point. It never came to pass, but this would have entailed that not only would I have been able to see The Black Affair live, I also would have been able to meet the man himself. Now, of course, should I ever meet him, there exists the danger that I'll be remembered as the prick who botched the festival line-up. I just hope that he hadn't bought train tickets...


So, there you go. A Steve Mason "buyer's guide" or something. Perhaps my favourite singer-songwriter, and the artist I'm most looking forward to seeing at Glastonbury. I can't wait to see as to what features in his set-lists. I'm hoping that they'll be real career retrospectives. Heavy on the Boys Outside stuff, of course, but also featuring much in the way King Biscuit Time, The Black Affair and, if there's a god, The Beta Band.

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