Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review: Angus & Julia Stone - A Book Like This (* * * *)

The brother/sister duo of Angus & Julia Stone have made quite a name for themselves in their native Australia. Their debut LP, A Book Like This, has gone gold there already, though it is just now coming to the States (thankfully). The siblings make beautifully simple folk music, each contributing their unique voices and descriptive narratives during the album's 13 low-key tracks.

The difference between this record and those of most other boy/girl pop groups is the separation of style and writing between the two members. Both rely on quiet, relaxed vocals and soft acoustic guitar for the majority of the record, but all of the songs clearly belong to one sibling or the other. Although both contribute vocals and several instruments to each track, the input is subtle enough to let each songwriter shine on their respective songs; so much so that the album feels like the seamless blending of the work of two artists rather than a cohesive collection by a band. The presentation actually works to the advantage of both Angus and Julia, who are each deserving of the spotlight but belong together just the same.

Angus Stone's delicate tenor voice is smooth and cool and his songs are the same - refined, straightforward, and a bit more dressed up than most of his sister's tunes. He opens the record with the gentle "Mango Tree," which rolls breezily along on some simple guitar and subdued drumming, but his next two cuts are more upbeat and emotionally detached. "The Beast" rides a groovy piano line and a conjures a late sixties rock vibe while "Silver Coin" works in some menacing strings for a lonely, cold folk-rock sound. He occasionally shows a more wistful and warm folk side, as on the gorgeous finger-picked guitar that accompanies the love story "Bella," but his bluesy, low-key rock 'n' roll style generally stands in contrast to the other half of A Book Like This.

Julia Stone's musical style also follows her distinctive voice, delicate, fragile, and full of emotion. Her first cut, "Wasted," is a sad, melancholy song, as is the quietly bitter, yet somehow hopeful "Hollywood." On "Private Lawns" and the album's title track, Julia turns up the intensity for a dramatic effect, using well-placed instrumental flourishes (trumpet, cello, etc.) compellingly . While some of her songs have bigger, more complex arrangements like her brother's, they get by much less on stylish presentation than on raw feeling and a uniquely beautiful way with words.

The final track, "Here We Go Again," is a rare example of the meshing of the sibling's styles, a warm, bright, and upbeat folk tune that manages to give a satisfying sense of closure to a record defined by subtle differences and two enjoyably distinct personalities. A Book Like This is a strong debut record from Angus & Julia Stone that succeeds much more often than it falters thanks to the duo's talent in songwriting and singing.