By Eleni P. Austin
Angus and Julia Stone grew up surrounded by music. Their parents, John and Kim, were a Folk duo before Julia, Angus and elder sister Catherine were born. As the kids grew up, their dad fronted a successful cover band.
Growing up in Northern beach towns in Sydney, Australia, their father taught each of the kids to play instruments. Catherine learned saxophone, Julia trumpet and Angus trombone. They would entertain at family gatherings, but none of them ever really nurtured musical ambitions.
During Angus and Julia’s teen years, their parents divorced. The teens stayed with their dad and Angus tentatively began writing songs. After graduation, Angus worked as a laborer and Julia taught trumpet. While recovering from a snow-boarding accident, Angus taught himself guitar.
The siblings spent a few years apart, but reconnected after Julia moved to South America. Angus gave her guitar instructions and shared some of his nascent compositions. When they returned to Australia, she encouraged him to begin performing.
By 2005, he was haunting Open Mic nights. Julia would occasionally provide back-up vocals at these gigs. It was during this period she also began writing songs as well.
At first they would perform their own songs separately, supporting each other instrumentally. They officially became a duo in 2006, releasing an EP of early material entitled Chocolates & Cigarettes.
Once Angus and Julia relocated to England, they received enthusiastic support from Fran Healy, founder of the band Travis. Ultimately, they recorded their second EP, Heart Full Of Wine in Healy’s home studio.
The duo’s first full-length effort, A Book Like This was released in their native Australia in 2007. Their sweet sound created considerable buzz, the album was released internationally in March 2008. They immediately received airplay on taste-making radio stations like KCRW.
Their follow-up, Down The Way, arrived in 2010. It expanded their sound without sacrificing the dreamy Folk-Pop that had become their signature. Suddenly, their music was featured commercials and television shows like “Revenge.” (There was a time when song placement in commercials would have been anathema for many musicians. Today, pragmatic bands welcome the exposure and the paycheck).
After some extensive touring, that included sets at Coachella and Australia’s Big Day Out fest, the duo took a much deserved break. They began to collaborate on a third album, but suddenly it seemed more sensible to record separately. Angus had already released a solo project, Smoking Gun, under the pseudonym Lady Sunshine in 2009. Julia’s solo debut, By The Horns, came out in late 2011. Angus’ proper solo album, Broken Brights, appeared at the close of 2012.
The duo seemed intent on pursuing independent careers until they each received word that Rick Rubin wanted to produce an album for them. Rubin, along with T-Bone Burnett is the most sought after producer in the music industry.
Rubin has worked with everyone from Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, to the Dixie Chicks, Tom Petty and Black Sabbath. His stripped-down production resurrected Johnny Cash’s moribund career and he has provided similar jump starts for Neil Diamond and Yusef, (ne’ Cat Stevens).
Retreating to Rubin’s Malibu studio, Shangri-La, Angus and Julia each brought a few fledgling compositions of their own. They also ended up creating a few together, which was a first. The result is their eponymous third record.
The album opens the shimmery shuffle-stomp of “A Heartbreak.” Thumpy piano runs and prickly guitar notes collide with a hand-clappy beat. Both share vocals as they quietly insist true love is fairy-tale crap.
As with their previous efforts, the album is evenly divided between Angus songs and Julia songs. Each take center stage on their individual compositions.
On the swoony “My Word For It,” Julia’s vocals are impossibly fey. Over stinging, circuitous guitar riffs and synths that sound like a theremin, she attempts to suss out a one-night stand. “..All the books upon your shelf, tell stories of who you are/But there’s more to the picture son.”
Both “From The Stalls” and “Main Street” paint vivid portraits of relationships in flux. The former opens tentatively with hushed, strummy acoustic guitars that sketch out the melody. As the tune gathers steam, percussion pianos and synths are added. The lyrics offer a ‘wild horses’ metaphor for sexual freedom.
Cloaked in plangent guitar chords and percolating synths, the latter is an urgent plea for reconciliation. “My heart is aching for yours…my bones are aching for yours.”
Julia truly shines when she drops the little girl mannerisms and really explores heart break. “Death Defying Acts” opens with dour acoustic notes and adds searing, fractious electric riffs to a kick-drum beat. The mood is melancholy and desolate as Julia attempts to resuscitate a dying relationship. Her vocal cadences slip from bluesy to jazzy to torchy with each turn of phrase. It’s a tour de force performance.
Angus is more laid back. The languid “Grizzly Bear” has an early ‘70s A.M. pop radio sheen, anchored by plucky guitar arpeggios, sweet organ and Fender Rhodes interplay, plus frothy “bah-bah-bah-bah” backing vocals.
Super-twinkly instrumentation and the jaunty arrangement of “Get Home” belies lyrics that bemoan a long distance relationship. Conversely, on “Please You” the melody is suffused in sadness while the lyrics offer an urgent tale of sexual concupiscence.
The most winning moments on the album come when the siblings really share the vocals, rather than just chiming in on each other’s songs. “Heart Beats Slow” blends jangly, amplified acoustic guitar, tinkling piano notes, slashing power chords and a heartbreak beat. The lyrics walk the listener through a civilized break up. “Well, I wish you, I wish you well/All the best.”
The pastoral “Wherever You Are”recalls the ethereal grace of Nick Drake. Honeyed guitar licks power the melody. The lyrics recall a romantic road trip. Finally, “Other Things” wed angular guitars, kalimba and tambourine to Angus and Julia’s off-kilter harmonies.
The album closes with “Crash And Burn.” Here, Angus unleashes his inner Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The melody is a downward spiral, the rhythm stop-start deliberate. As the tempo accelerates, guitars joust and parry with a thrashy agility. It’s an ambitious finish to a satisfying effort.
Props to Rick Rubin for not altering, but enhancing Angus and Julia’s sound. Hopefully, this proves that the siblings continue to collaborate as well as maintain independent solo careers.
Angus And Julia Stone is simply a gorgeous hang, gauzy and hypnotic. A perfect companion to a lazy, rainy day.