Sunday, June 21, 2009

Really bugged by Ray Mason's latest CD

In a sane world, we'd be allowed to lock up Ray Mason — that's the guy, to the left — under some provision of an expanded Son of Sam law for writing songs like "Eloise Please," one of those impossible tunes that bores into your brain and, having set up comfortable digs, absolutely refuses to leave — you know, the kind you find yourself humming without thinking about it, long after it has disappeared from your rearview. Bright and poppy, with an irritatingly catchy chorus, the song is about a poor schlump who can't get past the all-consuming love of the moment, but, very cleverly, doubles as an ode to the old days, when bubbly songs like these poured effortlessly, it seems, out of tinny transistor radios (coot alert: a reference to long-outdated playback technology) — and, doubly cleverly, Mr. Mason, serves as an instruction manual for other would-be songwriters to specifically target the "never forget"" portion of the brain: under three minutes, words that get right to the point, a bridge with a chorus that doesn't come on too strong.

The tune comes from the just-released "Like Bugs Chewing on Paper," which brings the count of possible indictments, um, Mason releases to an even dozen — if you don't count the seven albums from the Lonesome Brothers, a side project that has taken on a life of its own. The disc may hold some surprises for people who have been following the Pioneer Valley-based singer-songwriter over his, yikes, 40-year career. Like the off-beat "The Beam," which comes off as a cross between an obscure, turn-of-the-(20th)-century field recording and a secretly recorded Captain Beefheart reading — and clocks in at 19 seconds, a record, so to speak, even for the master of brevity. Or other seeming incongruities, like "Tourist in Town," which is built on a serious funk riff, a la Stevie Wonder, or the bossa-nova-flavored “Go Ahead and Kiss Her." He admits to the genre-jumping, calling the collection an "eclectic" mix, which is, of course, the kiss of death. You can't have people bouncing here and there, musically. You've got to keep people — and, more importantly, radio programmers — focused.

But, no worries: "Like Bugs Chewing on Paper" is steeped in the thang that has helped Mason survive all these years: a complete understanding about what it takes to write a great, roughly polished pop tune: a strong sense of melody, an oddball — oh, let's say “quirky” — sense of humor and, of course, those choruses that the paralyze normal brain functions. It's also immediately clear that this guy can write a song about anything — like the rockabilly number "Ceiling," which finds him looking at the ceiling and the ceiling looking back, and comparing notes. Or the grungy, defiantly lo-fi "Unusual Keys," which muses about the joys and responsibilities that come with having a job that requires having three pounds of metal attached to your belt.

And while Mason has a lot to answer for on "Like Bugs," he certainly shouldn't take the fall on his own. The disc was produced, recorded and mixed at Cloud Cuckooland by Jim Weeks, who played drums, keyboards, bass, guitar and mandolin, and is pretty much responsible for everything on the album that isn't Mason, building it from the ground up, from basic acoustic and vocal tracks, in just four days.

Of course, in a sane world, you'd all ready know this. Mason wouldn't be a coot writing crazy, catchy tunes in the wilds of the Pioneer Valley. He'd be a household name. Or, more likely, he'd be on the lam, trying to keep one step ahead of dazed fans who, tired of having "Eloise, please" going through their heads, have taken things into their own hands. But locking him up, our original idea, still sounds like a strong option. It's all good, as the kids say today. So, take that, Eloise. Please.

Mason breaks out of western Mass exile for a June 27 show at Sally O'Brien's Bar and Grill, 337 Somerville Ave., Somerville. That's Union Square, folks. Music starts at 9:30 p.m. Check out the date at Check out Mason at

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