Filed under: album, review | Tags: angus and julia stone, down the way, martyn clayton
Angus & Julia Stone
Down The Way •••
Hailing from Newport on the northern beaches of Sydney, Australia, brother and sister Angus & Julia Stone return with second album Down The Way, the follow-up to 2007’s critically acclaimed A Book Like This. They may have grown up in sunny, laidback climes, but there is an awful lot of anguished rain in their work. Downbeat and reflective, at times bordering on the maudlin, there isn’t much in the way of upbeat relief. But with clever songwriting seemingly in their bloodline and two complementary voices, they come with plenty of pluses. If the first album was all about acoustic simplicity, Down The Way moves a few notches along the production scale. Drafting in the watchful ears of Brad Albetta (Martha Wainwright) and beefing up the instrumentation, it’s an electrified statement of future intentions.
In the here and now though, Down The Way is possessed with movement and travel. Recorded in places as diverse as a former sawmill in Cornwall and a converted water tank in Coolangatta, taking in the more conventional destinations of London and New York along the way, its changes of scenery are frequently reflected in the material. With principal production charges falling to the Stones themselves, there is a sense throughout of emerging confidence right from the start. Beginning with an atmospheric arriving sweep of noise, ‘Hold On’ moves to haunting strings and a hypnotic downbeat piano riff as Julia’s vocals breathily skip with affected smallness. The childlike repetition of “Waiting for the day” before the chorus plea of the title is but one of the many lovely moments in a smart, moody pop song that sets the scene for what is to follow.
A simple combination of hazy, late afternoon sunshine guitar and unhurried piano ornamentation begins ‘For You’. A live show staple, the Julia-penned song is another intimate lyric of love on the brink, with a big appealing chorus. Angus takes a vocal turn on ‘Big Jet Plane’, originally recorded for his 2009 solo album as Lady Of The Sunshine. With its cutesy obsessional love for a woman who smells of daisies, it’s a simplistic alt-rock-by-numbers anthem which could be have been made by countless other acts. The chorus gets repeated too often, and although it reeks of radio accessibility, it’s a shame it doesn’t really stick.
The unsure acoustic start of ‘Santa Monica Dream’ signals a Julia-led vocal complete with Angus’s harmonies. Full of homespun, rooted images, Julia’s enchanting voice trembles with tentative distance, and there’s a primitive virtue in its lack of production theatrics. You can picture the faces of the “fifteen kids in the backyard drinking wine” and smell the pizzas being made in the kitchen and, by the time it’s over, you too might want to linger in similar domestic bliss.
By way of contrast, ‘Yellow Brick Road’ is far more complex. With a sweep that is almost cinematic, there’s a touch of ’70s AOR, plenty of California dreaming, and a guitar break that outstays its welcome. It’s another well-crafted potential gem that falls foul of the desire to do more than is truly necessary. More successful is ‘Walk It Off’, whose haunting chord changes build before a sudden change of pace fires off a strictly drilled rhythm that sweeps up the drama before falling away again. It’s another song that demands a place in a movie about the demise of a briefly fabulous small-town passion.
‘Devil’s Tears’ is a false closer hiding a hidden track. Recorded on the gentle banks of the River Fowey, it has the languid feel of the best kind of lazy English summer day spent with the one you love. This time Angus is lost in the intensity of a current relationship rather than mourning the passing of a love that’s died. Julia harmonises, the two of them creating a quiet, heartfelt beauty.
Down The Way is a mostly dreamy affair that sometimes loses itself in distraction. It never rushes the listener, nor does it really ever challenge. Lead single ‘And The Boys’ stands out for its inventive atmospherics; Julia’s warm voice shines through the darkness overlaying a simple piano undercurrent and trumpets break the trippy repetitions as more voices join this enchanting slow builder of a song. But there are too many moments that leave you with the nagging feeling that the songs are not as convincing as they ought to be.
There’s probably a lot more, and a lot better, to come from the Stone siblings; if they can travel to somewhere less vague than simply “down the way”, to meet their more inventive instincts at least halfway, the road could lead them to some interesting places.
UK release date: 15/03/10; www.myspace.com/angusandjuliastone
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