Something’s changed in the Stone siblings; not drastically, but certainly enough to notice. Their first album, A Book Like This was characterised by its gentle lilt – the sort of music you could imagine romantic scenes in fields being set to – but from the distorted guitar fade-in, kick-drum beat and sweeping strings of album opener “Hold On” it’s clear that Angus and Julia have gone in a ‘bigger’ direction for their sophomore effort.
Of course, their initial charm remains, mostly because of the pair’s wonderfully idiosyncratic voices, which endeared them to so many the first time around – Angus’ creaking mumbles are here in full force and Julia’s vocals have got even more mouselike and breathy if anything. What’s changed most for the pair then isn’t the style of their music, it’s how they present it. With electric guitar at the forefront of many tracks, string-filled crescendos leading to catchy choruses and far more emphasis on the rhythm section, we’re presented with the same folk-pop approach but with far more emphasis on the pop side.
Sometimes this works wonderfully, as on first single “And The Boys”, where the drums push Julia’s usually languorous vocals a little faster than you’d expect and lead to a perfect singalong chorus. Sometimes it doesn’t work quite as well – “Big Jet Plane” strains a little too far towards the kind of MOR soft-pop beloved of Radio 2, perfectly lovely but lacking any real punch.
But really, this new, louder approach is best when applied to something a little different. “Black Crow” possesses the soft menace of the quiet parts of early Pixies tracks at points whilst album centrepiece “Yellow Brick Road” lets both siblings stretch their classic rock muscles a little with a lazy blues-like solo taking up a hefty part of the 7-and-a-half minute runtime without managing to seem completely self-indulgent.
However, the real standout doesn’t utilise any of this new-found capability for noise. “Santa Monica Dream” sounds like the kind of song that Angus and Julia could have written on the beaches of their Sydney home long before they got access to drummers and string sections. A delicate acoustic number devoid of anything but two voices and two guitars, this is a perfect slice of nostalgia and regret with lines like ‘Goodbye to the children we’ll never meet/And the ones we left behind’ packing an emotional punch that’s only heightened by hearing both siblings singing together for one of the few times on the album.
Nonetheless, Down The Way is a relaxing, rewarding listen throughout and certainly shows the scope of the Stones’ musical prowess. They may have left the folk of their debut at the wayside somewhat, but what they’ve replaced it with can be every bit as joyful.
Words: Joe Skrebels