Album reviews: Steve Mason | Sharon Van Etten | Subjective

How the Beta Band’s formerly brooding Steve Mason learned to stop worrying and love life

Steve Mason PIC: Gavin Watson

POP

Steve Mason: About the Light (Domino) ****

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Sharon Van Etten: Remind Me Tomorrow (Jagjaguwar) ****

Subjective: Act One: Music for Inanimate Objects (Sony Music Masterworks) ***

Anyone who has followed Steve Mason’s career over the last 20 years, from fronting The Beta Band through solo aliases King Biscuit Time and the Black Affair to the uniformly excellent albums he has produced under his own name, will know what a consistent performer he is. So yet another great album from the Fife-bred, Brighton-based musician is no big surprise – except perhaps for Mason himself, who has hailed About the Light as feeling like “the first ‘legitimate’ record” he has made.

It exhibits the fluent eclecticism which has been a hallmark of his music from the start; what marks it out is its deliberately extrovert tendencies. In the past, Mason created his most singular work by looking inwards, brooding on his place in the world. But now he has married and embraced fatherhood, his focus is outwards and his musical methodology more democratic.

This latest batch of songs was written and honed in cahoots with his band, and then spiced up considerably by layering on brass arrangements and soulful backing vocals (in a nod to Bob Marley’s mellifluous backing trio the I-Threes, he has dubbed his singers the Aye Threes). In turn, Mason has pushed himself vocally, building on his distinctive, almost deadpan soul tones to sing in a more declamatory style and use his voice to tell the story. The result is a bigger, bolder sound, steered by veteran Smiths/Blur producer Stephen Street.

Opening track America Is Your Boyfriend is a bridge to his more politicised albums. Inspired by the Grenfell Tower fire, it is a withering look at how untrammelled capitalism ultimately costs lives. But the tone changes to encompass the freewheeling indie pop of No Clue and the rootsier soul of the title track, a Primal Scream-like indie gospel song about his wake-up call to reject isolation. Rocket starts as a soft hymn of reassurance and protection, and opens out to a widescreen testimony of love. Fox on the Rooftop is an urban fairytale about magical encounters, with Mason at his aching best over a wistful Pink Floydian backdrop, while the percussive punchy Walking Away From Love builds to a sense of exultation which envelops the whole album.

If Mason has learned to stop worrying and love life, Sharon Van Etten is on hand to cater for the elegantly troubled. The New York-based musician is an eloquent indie torch singer with an innate ache to her vocal, as witnessed on her guest appearance in the revived Twin Peaks and demonstrated on her latest album, Remind Me Tomorrow, on the heady Malibu and the tremulous Jupiter 4, whose gentle, unsettling throb recalls the more noirish end of early 80s synth pop. With its distinct whiff of mid-80s AOR, Seventeen is more muscular and less mercurial, as Van Etten mines that dormant teen angst to unleash her most unhinged vocal of the set.

Subjective is a newly minted musical pairing of old friends and collaborators – drum’n’bass face Goldie and studio engineer James Davidson – who say that “we just went wherever the smiles were” in the creation of their debut release. Act One: Music for Inanimate Objects floats agreeably over old ground, drawing on the patchwork of ambient, jazz and world influences which characterised the early 90s soundscapes of Future Sound of London and 808 State on the likes of Midnight Monsoon with its decelerated drum’n’bass foundation, synthesized strings and looped saxophone and trumpet. Find Your Light provides a shimmering neo-classical backdrop for Natalie Duncan’s languorous soulful vocals, while the astral jazz meditation Stay and township trance of Inkolelo are equally evocative.

CLASSICAL

The Polish Violin: Szymanowski, Karlowicz, Wieniawski & Moskowski (Chandos) ****

Up to the centenary of his birth in 1982, Karol Szymanowski was an obscure figure, yet his popularity has been rekindled since then, and his music points to a major player in the shaping of European modernism in the early 20th century. His music dominates this rich and intensive new album by British violinist Jennifer Pike and Russian pianist Petr Limonov. They open with the picturesque post-Impressionism of Mythes, Op 30, its central Narcisse laced with a ravishing, spectral mysticism. Then there’s the gentle orientalism that opens the Nocturne and Tarantella, the latter a ferocious and passionate response to the former. The disc ends with a selection of light-hearted Moskowski (Guitarre), Karlowicz (the songful Impromptu) and the passionate Romanticism of Wieniawski’s Légende and the flirtatious familiarity of his Polonaise de concert. - Ken Walton

FOLK

Claire Hastings: Those Who Roam (Luckenbooth Records) ****

This second album from Dumfries-shire-born singer Claire Hastings is a highly engaging selection of mainly traditional songs, loosely united by the theme of journeys – a motif which informs sleeve art portraying her as glammed up, Thirties-style, as if for a re-shoot of Murder on the Orient Express. Sensitively produced by Inge Thomson, the album finds Hastings in assured voice – perhaps no more so than in the poised and minimally accompanied yearning of Ten Thousand Miles. Elsewhere there is a spirited rendition of Jack the Sailor, a classic cross-dressing ballad, while a similarly spry treatment of The Seven Gypsies sees her fine band – guitarist Jenn Butterworth, fiddler Laura Wilkie, accordionist Andrew Waite and Tom Gibbs on piano – in particularly sparkling form. Another classic, Jamie Raeburn, is delivered with admirable clarity, while atmospheric rumblings on piano strings haunt Sailin’s a Weary Life. - Jim Gilchrist