The Balky Mule – ‘The Length of the Rail’ – Album Review

Better known for their ever emerging, popularising and esoteric signings, Fatcat Records have been known for taking a chance on their arcane sense for left-field instrumental acts in recent years, acquiring a great deal of industry acclaim in fostering such talent as Vishti Bunyan, Sigus Ros and Animal Collective respectively; therefore, it will come as no surprise that UK ex-patriot Sam Jones’ endeavors as The Balky Mule with ‘The Length of the Rail’ is somewhat of an idiosyncratic addition to the group.

Residing in Melbourne, Australia since 2006, this is multi-instrumentalist Jones’ first physical release in nearly nine years under the alias. The bedroom-based recordings of his eponymous debut album appears to only have been released for keepsake value on his own Archipelago record label in 2000, only really finding its way into a small number of friends’ hands and the muted attention of industry-types.

Despite the clear dormitory confinement to which ‘The Length of the Rail’ was created, The Balky Mule on the whole shows a fair amount of complexity and dexterity within his fragmented and unassuming arrangements. Opener “Dust Bath Birds” thumbs its way through a beautifully mellow acoustic guitar pattern with Sam’s daydream narrative vocal in accompaniment is nothing but endearing upon first listen, cajoling a certain sense of serenity within the listener; but it is the accumulation of sound that is layered, often surreptitiously, within its arrangement that really draws with its lo-fi appeal and willingness to be creative that is felt throughout the album.

On the whole, Jones plays with a very organic and earnest sound that shows curiosity in its cut and paste production. “A Moth” floats along with a warped merry-go round adaptation, softly strummed guitar and faintly inflected narrative, whilst the likes of “Range” jogs along nicely with a pop simplicity and homemade percussion backing and “Tell Me Something Sweet” closes the album on a winsome and unperturbed note.

However, at times, The Balky Mule’s want to buck the trend and eschew convention can be as uncooperative as his moniker entails. ‘The Length of the Rail’ does have a habit of loosing the listener with the likes of “Jisaboke”, “Blinking” and “Illuminated Numbers” as Jones veers haphazardly into an experimental arrangement of juxtaposed sound and noise that neither compels or bewitches.

The problem is, ‘The Length of the Rail’ sits on the cusp of being a thoroughly captivating, enjoyable and well thought out listen at times akin to the likes of a thoroughbred pioneers such as Beck in his resplendent ‘Odelay’ days; but often as not it is found still at the starting gate, unfortunately stumbling and falling over fences like child-ridden seaside donkey, indulgently kicking a rushed collage of uncertain recordings together for interpretation’s sake.

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