Album Reviews

The Balky Mule – The Length Of The Rail

(FatCat) UK release date: 16 March 2009

As far as singer-songwriter aliases go, The Balky Mule is hardlythe most flattering, though likely miles away from being thestrangest. The moniker belongs to one Sam Jones, now resident inMelbourne, Australia, but formerly of Bristol and bands such asCrescent and Minotaur Shock. With the formalities out of the way,let’s see what this stubborn off-spring of a male donkey and a femalehorse has delivered.

The Length Of The Rail is ostensibly Jones’s second album in hisMule guise, though the first was self-released well over eight yearsago and barely made a splash before sinking under. Now signed withFatCat records, he’s no doubt ready to make more of a go of a solocareer, with tour dates in the UK later this month lending weight tothat notion.

Opener ‘Dust Bath Birds’ actually kicks things off with a bit ofpromise. Well, other than committing the criminal sin of starting withbirdsong. It’s quite amazing the number of artists who use this,thinking it is, like, a really cool metaphor, where the dawning dayrepresents the opening of the album… and stuff. Once past this blip,though, the track impresses, albeit by sounding very much likeBeck in the Odelay glory-days: plucked guitar interrupted bybig, dirty riffs, and a sing-song chorus.

If Jones had kept on this path, he could have produced a fairlypassable album. On Before Too Long, however, he’s keen to unravel allthat good work as soon as possible. The percussion sounds almost asthough it has been lifted liberally from the sublimely insane DirtyProjectors classic Jolly Jolly Jolly Ego, with DaveLongstreth’s howling flasetto replaced by Jones’s dull, thininstrument.

This really highlights the two problems that beset the rest of TheLength of the Rail. Firstly: the voice. Jones really can’t sing. He’salmost always out of tune; or, is singing the same note most of thetime, so is occasionally in tune by chance. On top of this his voiceis brittle and lacks any real character.

It’d almost be forgivable if the music were good. Alas, Jones isconstantly marching off into the experimental territory that theProjectors work so well, without really getting further than theborders. Perhaps it’s the ways of the electro-happy Aussies rubbingoff on him, but, for some reason, throwing in a whole slew ofsyncopated bleeps and whistles proved too tempting. Combine the voiceand this added aural assault together and you have what verges, attimes, on the unlistenable.

It’s a shame, really, because when Jones reigns in his bleep-blipcompulsion and just adds the odd touch on more traditionallystructured songs – such as Jisaboke and Wireless – you can see that he’sactually quite a gifted songwriter. Closer Tell Me Something Sweet is,as it says on the tin, sweet, melancholic, and well-composed.

However these moments are few and far between in the endurance testthat is Jones on an experimental bent. Looking at The Length Of A Railwith a sharp eye, you could say that there is probably about an EPsworth of decent material here, and even then it would do better in thehands of a more naturally gifted singer. Perhaps this is what Jonesshould do. He could call the new group The Frivolous Hinny. Apparentlythey are rarer than mules. Much like good albums.

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The Balky Mule – The Length Of The Rail