Down The Way
REVIEW BY: Jono Russell
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/01/2010
Angus & Julia Stone's debut full length, A Book Like This, was a charming collection of indie folk-pop songs that blended the differing vocal and songwriting stylings of the Sydney siblings together seamlessly. While both offered subtle yet effective backing for the songs of the other, there was no doubt which cuts were Julia’s and those that had been penned by the more sedate (and, at least one song seemed to suggest, stoned) Angus. The simplistic arrangements made it an easy, but by no means lightweight, listen; hiding beneath the acoustic instrumentation was a darker undertone or two that ensured it remained compelling.
The formula worked well for album one, and while they haven’t changed that approach entirely for their sophomore effort, Down The Way, there are clear signs of maturation here. In the downtime between albums Angus released a side project (Lady Of The Sunshine) that was markedly different from the material he’d produced with his sister. For one, there was a much greater emphasis on all things electric, giving him the platform to explore a heavier, blues-rock sound. One of the songs from that project, Big Jet Plane, finds its way on to this album and, while the track itself is essentially unchanged, the alterations to the arrangement and supporting vocals prove that the family talent is better when combined. The strings are ramped up and it helps lift the song to an entirely new level of yearning, as Angus vows: “Gonna hold ya / Gonna kiss ya in my arms / Gonna take ya / Away from harm.”
Following Jet Plane is the dreamy “Santa Monica Dream.” It’s probably the closest the pair has come to sharing the ‘stage’ during a song, yet it’s still Julia’s haunting vocals that stand out. The lyrics are at times the weak point of the Stones duo, and this is perhaps the best (or worst) example of this yet, but the ethereal and undeniably pretty fingerpicking pattern is enough to retain your attention. There’s a genuinely heartbreaking innocence to the way Julia sings of not wanting to know if a former lover is “making love to the lady down the road,” as the duo sing to the ones they “left behind.” Both the writing and recording for this album was spread over numerous locations – from a water tank in Coolangatta, Queensland, to Cornwall in Britain, and even the States.
The influence of locale is never stronger than in the Neil Young-esque “Yellow Brick Road,” an ode to the West Coast of America. “I lost my heart in California / I lost my mind,” he sings, before going on to mention Young himself. “Heart Of Gold came on the stereo / Mr. Young made me cry,” he confesses, leading into one of the more memorable choruses of the album, backed by Julia’s sparse piano. The song clocks in at over seven minutes, complete with a guitar solo that doesn’t seem even slightly indulgent, and is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the record.
Following this is the first single from the album, Julia’s “And the Boys.” It’s another reminder that the strength of this pairing is largely due to the very different creative stylings they both bring to the party, as the electric guitar is abandoned in a return to their more traditional acoustic sound, backed by an understated piano part and brass that simply serves to reinforce what is, again, an addictive hook.
The experimentation with different sounds is explored even further in the banjo-led “On The Road,” which, as the name implies, would serve as a perfect windows-down road trip anthem. “She don’t like it when I’m on the road,” coos Angus, as Julia adds a subtle but appealing harmony over the top before they both allow the banjo and electric guitar to take center stage.
While Angus’ songwriting contributions to the duo have all been fairly breezy up to this point, Julia has produced songs in which the bitterness or hurt seeps from every syllable. “Walk It Off” is the latest of these: a string-laden realization that a relationship has come to an end. “I never wanted you to go / But I’d be the last to let you know,” she confesses, with almost no accompaniment, before the arrangement swells to support the declaration that “There’s nothing left for you / There’s nothing left for me.” Her next contribution to the album shares the same theme, as she – with a certain air of fragility – convinces herself that “I’m not yours anymore.”
While Down The Way may not grab you at first, it’s the sort of record that is constructed and arranged so well that the many layers will gradually reveal themselves on repeated listens. It’s more polished, varied and ultimately a more rewarding listen than A Book Like This, and it cements them as one of Australia’s finest musical exports. The fact they’re now at the point of selling out shows both in Britain and elsewhere, as well as in their homeland, should come as no surprise.