Established fans of the brother-sister blues-folk duo Angus & Julia Stone will find a comfortable familiarity in the slightly haunting melodies and melancholic undertones of the pair’s new eponymous album, with only minimal traces of the stale feeling that comes when artists find their niche and do not change. Those unacquainted with or indifferent toward the siblings will probably find themselves more interested in this album than any of its predecessors as it has a more polished and cohesive feel than any of the other albums. This is largely due to the influence of producer Rick Rubin, who has worked with ultra-popular artists like Jay-Z, Adele, Lady Gaga, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The man knows what people will listen to and what will sell.
Most prominent among these glossing up alterations is the increase in tempo from the archetypical Stone ballads. Undoubtedly the best aspect of this album, though, is the way that the duo have finally created an album that feels singular and self-contained. No longer is there such a striking division between Angus’s songs and Julia’s songs. No longer does listening to and Angus & Julia Stone create a sense of discord in the listener’s mind as they try to reconcile the juxtaposition of Angus’s cool and collected style with Julia’s dramatic and emotionally charged creations. For the first time, the siblings collaborated on individual songs, melding their two distinctive styles into something that was tonally cohesive, with refreshingly pleasant results.
The Stones did not lose their sense of duality, just smoothed it out under Rubin’s influence to be more pleasing to the ear without becoming uncharacteristically smooth. They still have the defining, striking, occasionally discordant harmonies created when Julia’s sweet yet rasping tones rise ethereally above her brother’s more clear, full voice. There are still songs that are distinctly Angus’s and distinctly Julia’s, but to combat the familiarity-verging-on-staleness that comes with this decision, their two most striking songs, “Crash and Burn” and “Death Defying Acts”, respectively, veer the farthest from their traditional sounds. “Crash and Burn”, the finale of the album, abandons their acoustic sound in favor of slow electric guitar, and with defeatist lyrics like “Will you come find me/ When I crash and burn?” displays more emotional vulnerability than Angus is prone to allowing in his songs. In contrast, Julia’s “Death Defying Acts” lacks the simplistic honesty of Julia’s previous songs, sitting comfortably in ambiguity through lyrics like “I am everything and I am nothing at all” that meld with the mournful guitar and Julia’s own cherubic voice to create an enigmatic but hauntingly beautiful tune.
The lyrics, as is to be expected from the duo, are still vaguely hokey in their attempts to be poetic and meaningful, and their ennui a bit ham-fisted. The siblings still make a few stretches in the name of finding tragedy in daily life (“There’s a plane in the sky/ If those people fall/ They will die”), and occasionally the writing is repetitive and lazy.
Despite all that, Angus & Julia Stone still manages to soar. It’s earnest, it’s discordant enough to be interesting, and it’s the perfect fusion of blues and folk. Rubin spied a diamond in the rough in this musical Aussie sibling duo, but had the good sense to appreciate the beauty in the raw form of their art, choosing to merely polish the rough edges enough to allow them to shine.