The charmingly dubbed Alpha Mule, a Southern California based project featuring the songwriting and musical talents of Eric Stoner and Joe Forkan, has released a revelatory ten song collection entitled Peripheral Vision. There are some notable guest musicians working on the project, namely Calexico’s Joey Burns and Jacob Valenzuela, but this slate of original tunes largely focuses on the talents of Stoner and Forkan. The duo never disappoints. These tunes draw, naturally, from a wealth of traditional blues, country, and bluegrass idioms to weave their magic, sport some truly incisive songwriting, but likewise make excellent use of more modern sounds to help realize the potential behind each song. There’s no sense of trapping butterflies under glass here – Alpha Mule’s songs are never so studied as to be rendered inert and there’s an intimacy that comes across here, even when there’s a full band at work, that will endear the musicians and their songs to a wide cross-section of listeners.
The atmospherics conjured by Stoner, Forkan, and their collaborators on the album opener “Corpus Christi” gets the release off to quite a memorable start, but these are never merely empty theatrics. Instead, a clear song emerges from the ambient beginnings and the music accentuates the “on the run” outlaw-ish elements present in their lyrics. The comparatively jaunty “On the Moon” is rife with metaphors and Joe Forkan’s solo vocal underlines the superficial playfulness of the tune without ever being too hamfisted about it. There’s a slight jazzy lilt to the track as well. Forkan takes another solo songwriting credit with the album’s title song and it’s another strong example of his love for metaphors as he conflates tangible vision issues with something deeper and more revealing of character. His plaintive vocals aren’t traditionally beautiful to hear, but there’s an appealing humanity about his delivery that will draw listeners in.
The bluesy swing of “Pavlov” is one of the masterworks you’ll encounter on Peripheral Vision and Forkan throws a little added bite into his singing that the earlier tracks only hinted at. His acoustic guitar has a hard charging quality to it and the harmonica coloring the song has a nice effect as well. The Forkan/Stoner songwriting collaboration on “Mule in the Mine” is pure blues, both lyrically and sentimentally, but the duo recasts it as more of a jump bluegrass tune, if such a thing exists, and it works splendidly. There’s some more harmonica here, following up on the success it has in other tunes, and it’s one of the album’s best moments with some real dramatic musical turns along the way. “Music of Our Hearts” is an aching song about lost love that flirts with cliché more than any other moment on Peripheral Vision, but thankfully never tumbles end over end into histrionics. Instead, the instrumental performance and a sensitive Forkan vocal redeem everything. The finale “Empire” is a stripped back tune compared to most on Peripheral Vision and takes on some weighty subject matter with some of the same poetic flair we’ve encountered on earlier tunes. Alpha Mule has given us a stunning debut with this release and it’s hard to not be eager for what they may do next.