Album review by Eric Sandberg — Steve Mason (formerly of The Beta Band) About The Light
Steve Mason's catalog presents an aural document of one man's journey from youthful eccentricity (a double-edged sword), isolation, depression and, ultimately, a joyous recovery. The music throughout is the product of a particular kind of genius possessed of an independent musical vision.
The Scottish musician's career began in earnest in 1996 with the formation of The Beta Band (pronounced "Bee-tah) who established themselves with three consecutive critically lauded 4-song EPs. The songs bridged the gaps between pop, electronica and progressive rock with just a smidge of the Bonzos to make it fun.
Their self-titled debut full-length went a tad over the top, opening up with a self-indulgent rap (!) about the history of the band. The Beta Band spent their next two albums recovering from this but ceased to exist after their third release, the astutely titled Heroes To Zeroes which received a big push from EMI but failed to break through, leaving Mason in debt, depressed and reclusive.
After a stint working construction Mason tentatively returned to music releasing an album under the name Black Affair. This was followed two years later by his first solo album under his own name, the critically acclaimed Boys Outside. With the success of Boys Outside Mason relocated from a remote cottage in Scotland, rejoined the human race and set about writing and recording the sprawling and ambitious Monkey Minds In The Devils Time, a dark and dense aural feast inspired by his struggle with crippling depression and political unrest in the UK, particularly the London riots.
Having exorcised his demons on his previous record Mason made his most accessible record to date in Meet The Humans. The album is steeped in electronica with relatively simple melodies and a more positive lyrical approach delivered somewhat tentatively by Mason's pleasingly soft voice.
Late last night a beleaguered Amazon delivery driver finally dropped the brand new Steve Mason album on my porch after driving up and down my street several times during the day. I tore the mailer open with my teeth and was instantly taken by the cover. Let's take a closer look:
What a great cover - the type, the layout, the colors, and that photo by legendary documentary photographer Nick Hedges. The friendship of these girls is palpable, their poses telling. The back cover appears to pay tribute to David Bowie. Released shortly after the third anniversary of his death, the typeface and run-together words duplicate the graphics on Station To Station.
With all the turmoil in the UK over Brexit, The Grenfel tragedy and the Windrush scandal, I wasn't sure what to expect from this album in terms of subject matter but, after several spins, I am very pleased to find, other than the excellent and biting opening track "America Is Your Boyfriend" Steve Mason is still working on himself.
About The Light is Steve Mason's most accomplished album musically. The canny decision to step out of his dark room full of twirly knobs and glowing lights to write and record the record with his touring band pays off. It's really his first album to sound like a professional, bonafide major label recording by an important and seasoned artist. A quick glance at the credits reveals the album was produced by one Stephen Street, who helped shape the sound of The Smiths, Blur and The Cranberries to name a few.
The opening track "America Is Your Boyfriend" hits hard with a tasty brass riff evoking Van Morrison. The lyrics, like all the best rock lyrics are just barely scrutable (I know) enough to allow you to find your own meaning. I got, 'If you get in bed with America you'll find yourself in jail and your boyfriend won't put up the bail money.'
The remaining songs touch on relationships, love and self-reflection. I have no idea what the brooding "Fox On The Rooftops" is about but the lyrics are intriguing.
"I saw the fox after midnight, I found Jesus just too late."
Perhaps the highlight of highlights is the playful "Spanish Brigade" a song that easily trounces Chris Martin at his own game, with another standout being "Walking Away From Love" (see video below).
Throughout the album's ten perfect songs, the live band arrangements are stellar and give Mason's unique songwriting approach a three-dimensional oomph it has lacked previously. Street has also coaxed Mason's strongest vocal performance on record. On each song Mason pushes his soft voice to a soulful timbre he may not have believed he had in him. About The Light is my first new release of 2019 and I can confidently predict that, in December, it will still be in my top ten for the year.
Review of Seth Macfarlane's The Orville on Fox Television
Anyone who knew me as a child knows that Star Trek was far and away my favorite television show. Growing up in Pittsburgh the worst punishment my parents could inflict on me was not letting me watch the new episode of Star Trek on Friday night.
Clever lad that I was, I was able to catch a grainy version on Saturday from the NBC affiliate in Steubenville that pre-empted it on Friday nights with studio wrestling. As a teenager I ran home from school daily to watch it on afternoon syndication before not doing my homework.
The Starship Enterprise felt like my home and its crew, my family. My living room made the perfect bridge of the ship when I played Star Trek with my friends Dan Reading and Neal Feldman. The front window was the view screen, the coffee table was the navigation console, the corner desk, replete with a slide viewer, was perfect as Mr. Spock's science station. I barked orders as Captain Kirk from my dad's easy chair.
I broke a stained glass lampshade while trying to move it out of harms way before the Klingons attacked, and I fouled up the controls of the washing machine in the basement while pretending it was the transporter room. Dan, Neal and I spent hours imaginatively transforming old toys like wooden blocks into communicators and phasers.
If I had gone on to build a tremendous amount of clout in Hollywood as a successful writer/creator/producer/director, I would likely be tempted to fulfill my fantasy of playing Star Trek with my friends for fun and profit. I am not anywhere near that position but, thankfully, Family Guy creator Seth Macfarlane is, and he has done it with great aplomb.
Macfarlane is known for irreverent, rapid fire comedy with the Family Guy cartoon and its empire of spin-offs as well as the Ted movies, and there is a comedic element to The Orville, but the funny moments are incidental and derived from the characters behaving like real people rather than stoic space-borne adventurers.
Macfarlane stars as Captain Ed Mercer whose career as an officer in the Planetary Union is in free fall after his divorce, until he is unexpectedly granted command of a small exploratory starship called the Orville. The only catch? His First Officer is his ex-wife (Adrianne Palicky) who cheated on him with a fin-headed blue alien named Derulio (Rob Lowe).
The crew is filled out by a couple of talented pilots who never outgrew their fraternity days, a pretty, petite alien woman possessed of the strength of a hundred humans ("Alara, can you open this jar of pickles for me?" is a recurring line whenever a hatch door is stuck), an aloof alien android, a pragmatic doctor who is a single mother of two brats, and Bortus, a Klingon-ish alien who comes from an all male planet that reproduces by laying eggs.
On the surface, the show's plot lines appear to be an edgier updating of the original Star Trek (although that show was often pretty edgy for the 60's) with characters that are relatable to today's viewer. A recurring background character named Dann, a bulbous-headed alien engineer, is easily recognizable as that annoying wannabe office hipster who always seems to be at the water-cooler when you're thirsty, asking you personal questions and responding with "Sweetness!"
ut there is more going on here. Much more. Macfarlane clearly recognized the veiled efforts at social commentary that were snuck past the censors by Star Trek creator/producer Gene Roddenberry and has made a priority of developing that theme in The Orville.
A season one episode concerned a planet that had no judicial system. The inhabitants were judged solely by their actions being captured on video by strangers and uploaded to the world wide web for judgement. Offenders go on media tours to repair their images before they receive ten million "down-votes" and a lobotomy.
The most compelling episodes of the show concern the relationship between Third Officer Bortus (Peter Macon) and his husband Klyden (Chad L. Coleman). The alien couple have a child after Bortus lays and hatches an egg, but in an extremely rare occurrence, the child is a female. When Bortus awards the honor of performing the ceremonial procedure of "correcting" the child's gender to Doctor Finn (Penny Johnson-Gerald) she is appalled and refuses.
The second season of The Orville (airing now on Fox) features an episode that upped the ante considerably. It entwined the daring rescue of survivors from a dying planet with the subject of pornography addiction. Bortus becomes distant from Klyden and their newly minted son, preferring sexual fantasy scenarios in the ships simulation room to going home. Bortus's obsessive quest for more intense titillation leads him to acquire a black market software program containing a virus that nearly destroys the ship and its crew.
The Orville has been slagged by a number of critics who began with a bias against Macfarlane and clearly had the show on in the background while they were on Twitter. This show is brilliantly written, cast and acted, and it sports the best special effects you will see on any science fiction show. It is a joy to watch.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.