King Biscuit Time

Black Gold

(Poptones; 2006)

By David M. Goldstein | 30 December 2007

It seems odd to say this about a guy whose best-known song is used prominently in the best-known scene of a modern hipster classic like High Fidelity, but former Beta Band front man Steven Mason has yet to fully get his due. I’m becomingly increasingly concerned that he won’t. Case in point: despite a run of four (I’m including 3 EPs [1998]) critically acclaimed records of pop-hued indie psychedelia, insurmountable debt forced his beloved Beta Band to implode, and Black Gold, Mason’s debut LP under the moniker King Biscuit Time, isn’t even slated for a U.S. release.

Damn shame too -- Black Gold is easily comparable to Mason’s finest work with his old band. In fact, it’s a significant improvement over Heroes to Zeros (2004), the Betas’ good-if-forced swan song (overrated by at least 9% thanks to yours truly, so…sorry). And despite my initial reluctance to kick down for Gold at the import price (thus this late review), I would now wholeheartedly encourage every Beta aficionado to do the same.

King Biscuit Time’s EP No Style featured more of what could be considered a “Mason goes solo!” sound. In terms of sonics, there is absolutely nothing to distinguish Black Gold from a proper Beta Band record. (Okay, sure -- the latter’s bass player is no longer around to contribute the occasional lead vocal, but Gold should lay to rest any notion that the Beta Band were anything other than Steve Mason and three dudes along for the ride.) The Betas’ trademark lush atmospherics, skittering laptop beats, and thoroughly overdubbed Mason vocals all remain mostly untouched; simply think of Black Gold as what should have been a proper follow up to Hot Shots II (2001), or, alternatively, a legitimate comeback from the comparatively staid Heroes.

If there’s a single factor that distinguishes Gold from its Beta predecessors, it’s within Mason’s decidedly personal set of lyrics -- they are seemingly addressed to a woman who broke his heart, and he’s none too thrilled. Although Mason’s not exactly known for being upbeat, the subject matter of these ten tracks is glum even by his standards, evident in rationalizations like “I only loved you for a little while” or the bitter declaration within the otherwise sprightly “Kwangchow” that “It could come to this / No more love / No more kiss.”

Interesting then that the latter track is arguably the catchiest thing Mason’s laid to wax since “Inner Meet Me,” chugging along on the strength of at least three separate chorus hooks before peaking with a shimmering five-note acoustic riff to tie things together. Unlike Heroes, Mason doesn’t skimp on the hooks this time out, and Black Gold features instantly memorable bits on nearly every song. “Rising Son” could be the man’s prettiest recording to date, centered around a melancholy mantra and hovering washes of sound evocative of Beta classics like “Push it Out” and “Wonderful.”

Anybody who was distraught at the Beta Band’s demise has no reason (high price aside) not to purchase Black Gold. For all intents and purposes, it’s a new Beta Band album, an excellent one at that, and Mason could probably use the mood lift. Seriously -- after Black Gold’s U.K. release, he cancelled a mess of tour dates and literally went off the grid, leading fans to fear the worst due to his documented history of depression. Fortunately, he turned out to be fine. Here’s hoping his legacy meets with a similar fate.