For a country of over 20 million souls who speak English as a first language, Australia’s contribution to the popular music canon worldwide is disappointingly thin. Those who make ripples outside their homeland are normally either popular but slightly naff (Kylie Minogue, INXS, Men At Work) or critically acclaimed but obscure (The Triffids, The Go-Betweens, Tame Impala). Arguably only Nick Cave has succeeded in being both popular and artistically relevant (Crowded House came close, but were 50% Kiwi).
Sydney’s brother/sister duo Angus & Julia Stone are the latest Antipodean success story to make the big push for recognition among the sceptical Poms. From a performing family – their parents were also a folk duo – since beginning to record together in 2006 Angus and Julia have notched up a Number 1 album in Australia as well as multiple awards at the ARIAs, the Aussie equivalent of the Brits. During the last few years, both have concentrated on solo careers, but following an unexpected approach from that most feted of producers, Rick Rubin, they are now back together again with this eponymous new record.
The big question is, has the great Rubin worked his Johnny Cash magic on the polite, slightly mannered folk-rock of the Stones and transformed it into something altogether edgier and more interesting?
Opening track A Heartbreak, with its menacing beat and choppy, swampy guitars, immediately signposts a palpable change in direction. Even the duos previously saccharine girl-boy vocals now sound uncharacteristically angry, chanting “girl, you’re just a child/falling in love” with real venom. So far, so surprising, and next song My Word For It continues in a similar vein, with Julia’s sultry drawl sounding sassier than ever before as she delivers more slightly troubling lyrics like “I get up in the morning/to watch you dress for work.”
It’s the change in mood that makes Angus & Julia Stone a step forward for the band and one suspects this is where Rubin has really made his mark. It’s hard to imagine their earlier incarnation coming up with something like Crash And Burn, which does a decent impression of Tonight’s The Night/On The Beach-era Neil Young with its ragged, extended guitar workouts.
Likewise, Julia’s transformation into a smoky torch singer on Death Defying Acts, while hardly original (the Portishead debt is unmistakable) is nevertheless highly effective. The fact the duo are writing together for the first time after penning songs independently on all their earlier releases seems to be working in their favour too, with their interweaving harmonies especially compelling on the instantly catchy, radio-friendly single Heart Beats Slow and the slow-burning Main Street.
The Stones do still have an occasional propensity for rather fey, lightweight acoustic jangles like Wherever You Are, and at 13 tracks – 16 for the deluxe version – the album is a tad over-long, especially as many songs clock in at between four and six minutes. But these are relatively minor drawbacks on what’s an enjoyable, accessible yet still slightly raw and edgy album. Angus & Julia Stone have succeeded in sounding like a lo-fi Australian indie version of late ’70s Fleetwood Mac, and although this record is no Rumours it is without doubt the Sydney siblings’ best effort yet.