The Balky Mule is the alias of current Australian Sam Jones, a self-taught musician and often composes his songs on a variety of keyboards, synthesizers, and other electronics mostly scavenged from rummage sales. Jones then repurposes his finds to create quirky, oddly soothing pieces of music. The Length of the Rail, the first release by Jones in eight years, is a collection that defies easy description. Sometimes pure pop, the music at points veers into the realm of ambient electronica. The Length of the Rail could be categorized as outsider music, but Jones is an artist working with a clear sense of audience in mind.
The Length of the Rail does share a kinship with the work of Daniel Johnston and other outsider artists in that it exists largely outside of the popular music paradigm. The songs are free of the pressure to be anything but artistic statements; an artist making music in this mode can express without having to create a marketable single. The results of this type of artistic freedom can be revelatory despite their quirkiness, and more personal to listeners because of their lack of polish.
The question, then, is whether Jones is able to capture lightning in a bottle with The Length of the Rail. As there is no way to truly critique an art form that whose hallmark is that it idiosyncratic, the best that can be said for the album is that nothing on it grabs the listener with an immediacy or inventiveness that indicates the type of transcendence encountered in the best of any music. In the case of the Balky Mule, however, the jury remains out. Music that is made only to move units shows its hand immediately; an album like The Length of the Rail could have layers that reveal themselves only after extended examination.