Release Date: Jun 22, 2010
Record label: Domino
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
Steve Mason has always come off as sort of an enigmatic fellow, lacking the mental frailties while possessing the acute fondness for exploration of his ‘60s counterpart, Syd Barrett. Perhaps Mason was the Barrett of his former unit, the Beta Band, a group of kitchen sink constructivists who released three heralded EPs followed by three albums. The first the band hated, the second was underrated, and the third mostly forgettable.
For years, Steve Mason's debt-ridden music career has been under the raised axe of the executioner. If there's any justice in this world, widespread acclaim for Boys Outside will grant a permanent stay of execution for the one-time Beta Band frontman..
From the first few seconds of Steve Mason's first full-length under his own name (following one as King Biscuit Time and one as Black Affair), the results could be a Beta Band reunion in full force, with all the crushing beats and junk-shop audio detritus to boot. But it soon becomes clear that Mason's production partner, Richard X, is having a subtle influence, one that pushes Boys Outside into adult alternative territory. While that may be worrisome for Mason's long-time fans, it bodes well for those who have long wondered whether his voice would always remain one of the best-kept secrets in the alternative/indie world.
When The Beta Band broke up in 2004, Steve Mason moved quickly to follow his penchant for electronic music, recording first as King Biscuit Time, then as Black Affair. Both of those ventures explored territory similar to that frequented by more popular contemporaries Björk and Thom Yorke, but neither King Biscuit’s Black Gold nor Black Affair’s Pleasure Pressure Point really seemed to showcase the talent Mason exhibited while working with The Beta Band. One issue with the King Biscuit and Black Affair releases was their lack of song structure.
For some artists, it must be easy to feel like your every utterance is blighted by an albatross the size of a mastodon on the Mama Cass diet plan. For Steve Mason, it would be understandable if this encumbrance were The Beta Band, the folky electro hop alchemists he headed from 1996 to 2004. A niche concern during their early, most productive period, the cult surrounding the Scottish four piece has seemingly snowballed since then, with a now famous scene from 2000 audiophile flick High Fidelity ('I will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band') leading to even the most casual of audiophiles to hail their underappreciated genius.
From Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to Wavves to recent SXSW laughing stocks Salem, we tend to blame premature, Internet-fuelled hype whenever artists don't live up to their promise (empty or otherwise). But as former Beta Band frontman Steve Mason would tell you, the weight of critical scrutiny has been crippling young bands' careers long before the mp3 blog was invented. Few artists have been as forthcoming about their failure to meet expectations as Mason, whether contemplating commercial suicide (see: his infamous designation of the Beta Band's 1999 self-titled debut as "fucking awful") or actual suicide (stemming from a bout of depression that saw him mysteriously disappear for two weeks in 2006).
Anyone with an ounce of empathy in them will find Steve Mason's third solo album, the first to be released under his own name, a sombre listen. As King Biscuit Time and Black Affair, or as part of the Beta Band, his troubled lyrics were swathed in so many layers of musical experimentation, producing mad hybrids of hip-hop and techno and reggae and folk, that their emotional impact was softened. But in this stripped-back setting, in which Mason's muted guitar and piano melodies are given a subtle electronic frosting by producer Richard X, his meditations on depression and heartbreak are devastatingly direct.
Boys Outside turns The Beta Band’s spectral, pastoral jams into electronic soul. Andy Fyfe 2010 Bob Dylan once said he didn’t understand how anyone could enjoy his 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. How, he reasoned, could anyone listen to the pain of his marriage being torn apart and be entertained? Catharsis, of course, is often the very essence of great art, but with a pinch of salt you can see his point.