Veteran roots-rocker Ray Mason is at it again. In a life rich with music (he's also part of the alt-country band Lonesome Brothers), he somehow manages to remain quite prolific. Following close on the heels of his easy-to-love 2002 set, Three Dollar Man, as well as the contribution of six more songs to the 2002 Lonesome Brothers' Pony Tales release, Ray and his musical cohorts are back with Idiot Wisdom, another short but sweet collection featuring eleven songs bound to please.
Ray and his band have been making fun music since 1982, and releasing "official" albums since 1994. Sadly, the general public still doesn't know him as well as it should, so here's the quick scorecard: Ray calls western Massachusetts home, he plays a signature 1965 Silvertone guitar, and heads a talented ensemble comprised of guitarist Tom Shea, bassist Stephen Desaulniers, and drummer Frank Marsh. Producer Jim Weeks serves as the guest fifth member, adding some keyboards and guitar solos.
Averaging over 140 shows a year, the Ray Mason Band has opened for a veritable list of musical all-stars including the Band, NRBQ, Marshall Crenshaw, Graham Parker, Robbie Fulks, Yo La Tengo, They Might Be Giants, Steve Forbert, Nils Lofgren, Chris Whitley, Freedy Johnston, Joan Osborne, Warren Zevon, Alejandro Escovedo, Joan Jett, Blue Mountain, the Bottle Rockets, Junior Brown, and others too numerous to mention.
This latest collection finds the band in fine form, taking up right where they left off in the studio a year ago. There are ten new Ray Mason songs, weighted a bit toward alt-country, though there's still a variety that goes from NRBQ-type bluesy bar rock to more John Hiatt-ish country-tinged pop, with guitar accents that extend that range yet further, from Carl Perkins-styled rockabilly to cool, fluid jazz.
Also included is a nice cover of the superb John Sebastian/Lovin' Spoonful tune "Didn't Want to Have to Do It". Mason's soft voice paired with his and Shea's guitar work make this difficult ballad both smooth and memorable.
The new CD opens with the infectious "Ring-a-Ling", a sweet jangle of guitars mixed in with funky beats to convey the special feelings of telephone calls to and from a certain loved one. The song itself recalls simple pleasures and simpler times -- calls were a dime and popular music was melodic and life was heartwarming. But I digress
The title track is one of those you'll find yourself able to sing along with almost instantly. Mason has a talent for that kind of accessibility, writing unpretentious songs that often hinge on basic ideas and astute observations. "Idiot Wisdom" is another such song, pointing out the odd truth that if you hang around long enough, your experience becomes interesting to others: "Who would ever think that someone somewhere would be up for it all? / Idiot wisdom sure makes a man tall".
"Water off a Duck" playfully works off a standard blues progression, bemoaning in a most cheery way the money woes that beset the common workingman (and/or woman). We get wind of the evil landlord, an examination of the phrase "come hell or high water", and the wisdom of heeding the platitudes of your friend Roy. This is easy, friendly fun, and I admire the fortitude involved in resisting an f-word rhyme.
Following what could be a Grateful Dead lead-in, "Big Ass Balloon" launches into a catchy if somewhat obscure song about feeling alone even amid the crowd. Then again, perhaps I'm just trying to make sense of nonsensical lyrics -- you be the judge: "When you walk into the quiet room, it's filled with people that're wall to wall / Swear you couldn't hear an anvil drop, must be the summer of your fall / My chatter, bring out the ladder, going up, gonna see ya on the moon / On second thought, let's put away the ladder, it's leaking like a big ass balloon".
While the country influence definitely rules the overall tone of the new CD, most evident is how Ray Mason approaches a lot of his songwriting from a bass player's perspective. Some of the songs start with an unadorned riff, and while not all of the songs have powerful walking basslines, there always seems to be a strong bass component (handled well by Stephen Desaulniers).
This is the case with the bluesy, jazzy journey of "Digging from the Same Dirt". The rhythm section drives the song, one that counters someone's claim to be something special. The point here is that we're all the same: "Digging from the same dirt / We're reaping from the same plow / Trying on the same shirt / We're drinking from the same cow / We're digging from the same dirt / We're digging on the same sounds". The song extends to over five minutes to allow for guitar leads (some fancy jazz guitar work by guest Jim Weeks) and drum leads from Frank Marsh. There's a real sense of live performance here.
Mason can always find great hooks, and he does so again with "Slippery". The sound is fun, smooth and easy; the lyrics, playful and humorous ("Your father told you not to play with snake / Or Uncle Fred when he jumped into the lake"), even when discussing the heartbreak of letting a slippery love get away ("People always say how'd you let her get away / Let me go hide in the woods").
Launching from a fingerpicking start, the country bounce of "Life Is Full of Missing" shows Mason's skill in turning simple sounds into something far richer and complex. The rich guitar fills deliver perfectly here, while the lyrics deliver bittersweet homespun wisdom: "Please don't tell me that you're gonna go / I was told, but I didn't really know / No excuse but if you make the break, I'll be broken / Life is full of missing, two plus four / Never thought of adding up just one more / Life is full of missing, Three times three / When you multiply the pain, life is full of missing".
No Ray Mason Band album is complete without a good barnburner, and you get that with "When the Ceiling Shakes Hands With the Floor", a seemingly wry celebration of the comfortable familiarity of times with friends, laughing at the same old jokes and stories.
The halting "Convincingly Mad" walks atop a bass line, a song discussing one decidedly angry person, sitting in a dark room, being strange, obstinate and ultimately convincing.
The CD closes with "Backroad Highway", a song you can imagine being played live in some crowded roadhouse somewhere. Here Mason is the poor country boy, begrudging the loss of his world to another, paying for slices of melon, chain stores displacing local mom-and-pop shops, gravel replacing dirt on the roads. He's a firm resister, wondering whether the moon will be the next thing they take. The performance is loose and easy, and features some nice guitar work by Tom Shea.
While the work of the Ray Mason Band most likely will continue as under-appreciated and far from trendy, there's no denying the quality evident in the music. Idiot Wisdom takes its place among other fine Ray Mason Band releases of recent years with more accessible, instantly familiar, and easy to listen to music. If you like roots-pop with a country bar-twangy, blues rock edge, you can't go wrong with the good-natured offerings here.