Eric Stoner and Joe Forkan, both visual artists by day, come together to form a potent partnership much greater than its parts. Their website claims influence by rock, blues, bluegrass, folk and traditional country and to be honest, that is a fair summing up of the variety of styles on this wonderful album, albeit that it only ever tempts us toward bluegrass, never actually quite taking us through the door.
The banjo is used in a relaxed form, usually clawhammer, and there is no fiddle. Starting with Corpus Christi, a wild-west-Marty-Robbins-evoking tale of travelling from Los Angeles to the eponymous Texan town, the album moves smoothly through the gears, treating us to a happy, banjo led ditty a-la-John Hartford (On The Moon), blues (Pavlov), and even a beautiful guitar instrumental (The Ballad of Huell Howser), which actually disappoints when you find out the title (So what is the story of Huell Howser? Who is he?); if you don’t follow the titles through, just listen, you will be much happier.
There are even touches reminiscent of Eels: distorted, lo-fi, telephone voice and happy-but-serious songs, especially Short Man’s Room, which sounds like it could have been lifted right off ‘A Man Called E’. The centre piece is actually the title track, Peripheral Vision, a classic-country sounding love song, which could quite easily have been recorded by Don Williams in another time. Having only been together for 3 years, Alpha Mule sound like they have been around forever – and that’s a good thing! The vocals are somewhere between Jon Sebastian and Nick Cave, thick, yet not too deep and able to sound serious, even when attempting humour. The instrumentation is lush, but not overpowering: never inappropriate. Occasional reverbed resonator guitar and even trumpet at times – never out of place, always helping to enforce the catchy melodies, each instance like the BFG’s long dream trumpet, blowing the tunes further into your ear, so you may well wake up humming them.
For two guys who only have music as a second career, the playing is flawless; so much so, that maybe we should ask if maybe the visual arts are their second jobs? On second thoughts, everything sounds so relaxed and easy that this could well be the product of many a chill-out session after a hard day in the dark room. Hopefully this duo will take off, but if they do, fingers crossed that it doesn’t become any more serious or intense – effortless and laid back is the way this album works and the way Alpha Mule’s music works.