[CD Review] The Balky Mule, 'The Length of the Rail' (FatCat)

Given his role in several key acts from Bristol, England—Movietone, Crescent, Third Eye Foundation and Flying Saucer Attack—one might expect Sam Jones’ home-recorded explorations as the Balky Mule to involve stark post-rock, eerie drone or shadowy trip-hop. Instead, his debut album meditates humbly on random intersections of whispered pop, ramshackle folk and tinkered-with electronics. The Length of the Rail plays almost like a diary, littered with heartfelt revelations and imbued with a genial warmth.

Over 15 tracks, that intimacy can cut both ways; these songs may feel either quaint and quirky or half-baked and tossed-off, depending on your outlook. A British expat living in Australia and a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, Jones assembled the vast majority of the album alone, from the writing to recording to mixing. That may be why everything flows so organically together to the point where sounds begin to blur together.

It’s often Jones’ shorter songs, meanwhile, that house the most indelible lyrics, always sung in a pinched nasal style that’s rightly been likened to the Kinks’ Ray Davies. On “Chalk,” he announces, “You see those drawings/They are my doing/A simple way to answer the morning.” “Range” conjures an image of Crosby Stills & Nash on the radio while collard greens and gravy cook, and the opening “Dust Bird Baths” sees Jones softly intone, “A king’s heart must have a sliding scale/For all the nation’s needs.”

None of this is revolutionary, despite the interesting patchwork of styles here, but it’s a pleasant and thoughtful diversion. Fans of Alfie, Adem and other slightly twee British folkies would be well-advised to tune into the Balky Mule’s sleepy, unraveled musings.

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