Interesting chap Jon Mason. Go to his website and it turns out he is better known in his guise as storyteller, with music being something of a second string to his bow.
His website homepage has a great picture of him in full flow with a class room of kids and his bio tells us 'My name's Jon Mason and I'm a storyteller based in Brighton. Storyteller, you ask. What like some sort of minstrel who tells old fairy tales about princesses and magic? Well yes - sort of. But there's a lot more besides….'
Where things link thematically with his music becomes apparent when he talks about his love of both legend and factual history, the 'blurry place between the two where things get really interesting'.
Many people in the Brighton area seem to share Jon's vision and his album has something of a cast of thousands involved, whether it is playing, recording, production, artwork or funding. There is a real sense of community at work here.
For 'Unmet Needs' Jon has a core band of himself on vocals, guitar, harmonica and percussion, Mark Wilson, bass, double bass, backing vocals and Weezey Jaye, drums and backing vocals. Additional musicians then add cello, piano, organ, violin, trumpet, trombone and more backing vocals across various tracks. The majority of the album was recorded at Brighton Road Recording Studio by Ali Gavan plus some at home by Jon and Richard Hall, with it all being mixed by Ali.
Lastly, the songs are a mixture of Jon Mason originals and others taken from various sources, both traditional and more contemporary.
Opening track 'On the Streets of Our Town' enters gently on a picked guitar piece before the band come crashing in all guns blazing, driven along by the tight rhythm section. Jon does not have the strongest voice in the world and at times, his pitch wavers a bit, but he sings with a heart and conviction that can leave no doubt about his commitment to his lyrics and music. Sounding like something of a paean to the sights and sounds of his hometown Brighton, the song fairly rattles along with shades of Frank Turner about it.
The second song 'The Colliers' March' written by John Freeth in 1782, links Jon Mason the storyteller and Jon Mason the musician. A choppy rhythm guitar and moody bass introduce the song with Jon speaking to the listener over the top of the track, part story, part history lesson and part personal observation. Jon starts singing at about two minutes twenty seconds in but this musical section of the track does not quite live up to the spoken piece. Jon's voice does not quite have the dynamic range to carry the narrative along with the gravitas needed and the song flags a little unfortunately.
However, things soon look up again and 'Johnny Cash' is a great pop song, boasting something of a 'Folsom Prison Blues' vibe and is full of great little throw away rhymes. Jon's voice sounds much stronger here and I think it sits best when he is being pushed along by the band.
Track four, 'Harry Cowley' features lyrics by Jon and a tune by John Hughes, best known as the hymn 'Bread of Heaven'. Harry Cowley was apparently a Brighton chimney sweep and market trader who fell upon hard times after returning from the First World War and became one of the earliest community activists, working tirelessly on behalf of others. Jon introduces this story over atmospheric brass playing 'Bread of Heaven' and then at about one minute, the track switches to song and becomes a more conventional guitar and vocal driven piece.
Right in the middle of the album is my favourite song 'The Space Left Behind by the Wall'. It is a mid tempo track that builds and layers throughout and features Jons best vocal by far with a real depth and certainty to his voice.
Having said that, the 'The Whole Story' is almost as good. It's another mid tempo, nicely syncopated track that pushes along tightly and Jons voice again sits comfortably in the mix.
Other notable songs for me were the electric guitar driven 'Five Months Without Falling' sitting pleasingly in Frank Turner territory once more and Graham Moore's 'Tom Paine's Bones', which cracks along in similar fashion.
This record is full of ambition and successfully blends the past and present, fact and fiction. It is solidly played and recorded and features some very creative arrangements. In those places where it does not work so well it seems that the bigger ideas have been at the expense of the foundations, such as getting a better vocal take from Jon. I think some extra work here would have really paid dividends, particularly when presenting material as powerful as 'The Colliers' March', which needs an equally powerful voice to carry the story.
Musically, Jon and his band are at their best when they are moving songs along and the playful 'Johnny Cash' is a particular highlight. Equally, they sound tight and cohesive with the two mid tempo numbers 'The Space Left Behind by the Wall' and 'The Whole Story', both of which build, push and pull convincingly.
'Unmet Needs' is an engaging album and will do Jon Mason's reputation no harm at all. It will be very interesting to see where he and his cast of thousands decide to take things from here.
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