Album reviews: Steve Mason | Bonnie Raitt | Holy Esque

The Scotsman's music critics review the latest album releases, including Steve Mason's Meet The Humans

Steve Mason
Steve Mason

POP: Steve Mason: Meet the Humans | Rating: **** | Double Six

The last time we heard from former Beta Band frontman Steve Mason, he was raging, questioning, beseeching and celebrating across an eclectic concept album of songs and mood pieces set against the backdrop of the 2011 London riots, to which he was a nonplussed witness. Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time deserved to propel him to greater commercial heights – but didn’t.

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It did, however, win him admirers for his musical and lyrical ambition. Follow-up Meet the Humans does not quite match such an audacious standard, though it does grapple with similar themes, as Mason scrutinises The System but also his place within it and without it.

Produced with a light, airy touch throughout by Elbow’s keyboard player Craig Potter, Meet the Humans may not rage as hard musically but it is just as keen a rumination on personal and political responsibility in this day and age. Mason’s voice is, as ever, enigmatic in its lack of expression but the lyrics are deeply felt, whether packed with latent bile or caring encouragement.

With its gentle swish of drums, rhythmic house piano and Mason’s blissed-out vocals, opening track Water Bored returns to the “baggy” indie dance sounds of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when guitar bands fashioned their own sonic response to the acid house boom. However, Mason is not urging his listeners to tune in, turn on and drop out, but to get mad and break free. “You can make it, just break this grip over terror,” he intones evenly, without a single vein popping.

The more joyful moments are delivered with similar sangfroid. 
Alive is another appealing indie shuffle with added melodica, boasting one of the album’s most stirring choruses, just the ticket for lifting the mood when it floats out of the radio.

This pop highlight is followed by a succession of soothing, mid-paced numbers featuring chiming piano, gentle handclaps and mellow guitar picking, but there is a more overtly aching tone and dynamic build to Hardly Go Through, while the gossamer, trance-like Through My Window makes atmospheric use of simple, sonorous piano with Mason at his most vulnerable, feebly entreating “is there anybody out there, is there anybody free?”

Planet Sizes, another dose of mellow indie with an almost absent-minded catchiness, finds a soothing groove and sticks with it. Like Water is another “baggy” throwback, reminiscent of the more chilled-out tracks from Screamadelica, but comes blessed with the album’s other irresistible chorus, while Words In My Head evokes the menace and melodrama of classic mid-90s trip-hop with its funky drummer break, swirling electronica backing and Mason’s inscrutable, almost listless tone as he asks “can you feel the words in my head?” Those words are calmly expressed but deeply considered by this skilled songwriter. Fiona Shepherd

POP: Bonnie Raitt: Dig In Deep | Rating: *** | Redwing Records

By her own admission, Bonnie Raitt has a lot less to prove at this stage in her career. She sounds liberated throughout these laidback proceedings, relishing the controlled sultriness of her take on INXS’s I Need You Tonight and enjoying the unfolding bluesy scenery on The Comin’ Round Is Going Through with its dash of ZZ Top boogie and naturally gravelly vocals which would make Rod Stewart look to his laurels. There is not a coiffed hair out of place from this accomplished player but she kills softly on tender ballad You’ve Changed My Mind and effectively channels Carole King on The Ones We Couldn’t Be. FS

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POP: Holy Esque: At Hope’s Ravine | Rating: *** | Beyond the Frequency

Glasgow’s Holy Esque fit snuggly into the slightly pretentious, chest-beating corner of the indie scene, which likes nothing better than to whip up a big fuss over decent but not spectacular songs. Silences, for example, barrels along on a wave of guitar distortion and echo chamber acoustics, pedalling furiously for fear that its thin foundations might give way. Pat Hynes’s anguished, serrated vocal is this band’s distinguishing feature. It’s an acquired taste – a good fit for the stormy guitar playing and martial drumming on Prism but manifesting more as a quavery bleat on quieter passages such as Doll House. FS

FOLK: Reclaimed: Pipe Music and Song from the Scottish Borders | Rating: **** | Greentrax

While the “cauld wind revival” has seen a phenomenal renaissance in Scotland’s bellows-blown Border pipes and smallpipes, they have tended to be deployed in Highland style music while Lowland repertoire has remained under-exploited. Assembled by the Lowland & Border Piper’s Society, these diverse groupings and soloists, too numerous to comprehensively list, are therefore heartening to hear.

Hoary old tunes such as Linkumdoddie, Jacky Latin and Stumpie are put briskly through their paces by pipers, fiddlers and other accompanists such as recently formed trio Lignum Vitae, Fin and Hamish Moore, Callum Armstrong, Iain MacInnes and Gordon and Shona Mooney. Malinky’s Fiona Hunter, meanwhile, sings Helen of Kirkconnell Lea over a mellow drift of smallpipes, fiddle and cello.

Gary West’s fine composition, The Jedburgh Ba’ Game, is introduced by an archive recording of Border shepherd Willie Scott recalling mayhem in the streets, while another recording captures the late Martyn Bennett discoursing wittily on a demanding sequence of variations before playing them with characteristic panache. Jim Gilchrist

CLASSICAL: Esther Yoo: Sibelius & Glazunov Violin Concertos | Rating: ***** | Deutsche Grammophon

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It’s easy to see what all the fuss is about in relation to the young Esther Yoo who, at the age of 16 in 2010, became the youngest prize-winner of the Sibelius Violin Competition. In this showcase recording, she is a ubiquitous presence in partnership with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the concertos of Glazunov and Sibelius, as well as the latter’s folksy Suite for Violin and Strings. What strikes you most is the richness of Yoo’s tone, combined with a radiant intensity in the Sibelius concerto, and joie de vivre in the Glazunov. She oozes confidence, rhythmic vitality, and a natural expressiveness that gives every phrase an engaging presence and freshness of thought. The Philharmonia provide sumptuous support. Ken Walton

JAZZ: Jaimeo Brown Transcendence: Work Songs | Rating: **** | Motéma Music/Membran

Not so much jazz performances as vivid and frequently moving “digital tapestries”, these tracks by New York drummer Jaimeo Brown and co-producer and guitarist Chris Sholar give voice to the voiceless and forgotten from African-American backgrounds and beyond. Archive recordings of everything from Parchman Farm chain gangs and cotton pickers to the clink and chorusing of Japanese stonemasons are spliced with jazz, rock, gospel and hip-hop elements to create cinematic sounding collages. They’re augmented by studio guests including saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and JD Allen and vocalists Lester Chambers and Marisha Rodriguez.

As inspiration Brown credits the American folksong collector Alan Lomax, whose field recordings include the chain gang whose chanting slugs its weary way through Be So Glad, and also in Hidden Angel, its melancholy railroad-horn backdrop shot through with Shaw’s alto sax. Allen’s soprano sax, meanwhile, flexes its way through the increasingly intense For Mama Lucy, resurrecting the quavering blues singing of penitentiary inmate Leroy Brown. Jim Gilchrist