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Steve Mason
Boys Outside Wyndham Wallace , May 25th, 2010 09:20

We're here to review records, of course, not press releases, but it speaks volumes that the opening section of Steve Mason's press biography is devoted to the initial three EPs that his first group, The Beta Band, released a dozen years ago. Somehow, notwithstanding frequent moments of genuine splendour, a never-ending stream of critical acclaim and an arguably justifiable claim to having helped give birth to the twisted folktronica scene that proliferated in the early years of the 21st century, they never escaped the shadow of those first twelve tracks, as though they'd set the bar so high that they were doomed to disappoint. What set those first EPs apart, however, was not their groundbreaking pick 'n' mix of musical styles so much as the genuine warmth that seemed to inhabit their songs. Despite the sense of ennui that permeated each one, they had an enviable optimism and a laidback, shuffling charm; there was joy in the almost off-key trumpet solo in 'Dry The Rain', nostalgia in the antique piano that opened 'Dr Baker', innocence in the radiophonic sound effects of 'Inner Meet Me' and unapologetic fun in the chipmunk vocals at the end of 'She's The One'. Much that followed, however, seemed in comparison a little contrived, a little formulaic, at its best only “almost as good as their early stuff”. You could therefore hardly blame them for breaking up in 2005: each and every release was weighed down by their history, and their need to please a major label and audience eclipsed the instincts that had made them so beloved in the first place.

Steve Mason - 'Boys Outside' by DominoRecordCo

Since their split, Mason has hidden behind pseudonyms King Biscuit Time and Black Affair. But throughout all of his work his voice has shone through, laden with a gentle, empathetic despondency. He sounds like a man in need of comfort yet still able to offer it, and what success The Beta Band enjoyed undoubtedly owed a great deal to this. Boys Outside finally sees him emerge from behind the curtain, signing off on its ten songs personally. It's hardly a great departure from his previous work - a little less eccentric and a little more polished, no doubt indebted to producer Richard X (Annie, Sugababes) - but it's essentially the Steve Mason we've known for a while: softly spoken, instantly melodic, an indie kid with pop stars in his eyes.

The thing is, though, Mason isn't a pop star, so those still riffing on that early promise and backing him to go all the way at last are again unlikely to be satisfied. Mason instead comes across like a 'good bloke', a sweet man given to honest expressions of sentiment who'd offer you his last pork scratching. Back in the day, that used to be enough. We didn't expect 'our' artists to compete with the mainstream: we wanted to feel they still belonged to us. If they stormed the barricades of Top Of The Pops it was cause for celebration, perhaps even vindication of some sort, but we were content to know that we, as fans, were part of a tribe that sought something a little more personal. We could all look each other in the eye, even if we were looking up at a stage. Times have changed, though, but if you can put to one side the contemporary malaise that insists that success is only success when the 3am Girls are in the picture, then Steve Mason's continuing low-key presence is gratifying.

On the basis of Boys Outside, we can rest assured that Mason's profile won't change, even if the presence of Richard X suggests that certain eyes are on greater prizes. But the truth is that 'Mr X' is there first and foremost as a fan, and his presence is hardly obtrusive. It simply ensures that Mason's presentation is that little bit tighter than we might have expected from previous outings, its synths a little lusher, its grooves a little more pronounced. Mason's not being groomed as a star here: he's simply benefiting from the experience of one who knows how to play to a song's strengths. In practise, this means that Boys Outside is understated and charming yet, ultimately, just a little too clean and consequently underwhelming. Its highlights are many, and yet it falls short of gripping. The chorus of 'The Letter' may rise like a wave but, once it's broken, it's gone. The one finger keyboard line and programmed Morse Code percussion at the heart of 'Stress Position' may aim for the more streamlined pop of 80s groups like The Human League, but it's closer to Frazier Chorus and unlikely to be remembered by many more than those who can summon up that particular dainty fragrance. 'Lost And Found' and 'All Come Down', meanwhile, may recall the simple pleasures of 'Dry The Rain', but they fail to linger, disappearing with each song's fade. It's all delicious, though, make no mistake: soft round the edges, as loveable as an old blanket. It's just that it's as easily discarded.

Without the ghost of 'The Three EPs' inviting us to contrast his current work with those initial flashes of genius, perhaps this wouldn't be an issue. Maybe that's why he hid behind pseudonyms in the past, using them as a way of divorcing both himself and his new music from what had preceded it. But that remains hard, certainly when those around him are so keen to remind us of such past glories. Boys Outside therefore remains the sound of a man trapped in limbo between hipster adoration and mainstream stardom, falling short of both. This, however, is a place where many pleasures lie, and failure to penetrate the masses doesn't equate to failure to penetrate the heart. If it lacks the innocence and the joy, the nostalgia and the fun, of Mason's early accomplishments, it still provides enough of that curious mix of melancholy and elation to invite repeated casual listening, and to ensure that Mason remains deserving of our ongoing affection.