Sixty Summers (BMG)
There are obvious commercial, practical and, presumably, familial reasons for Julia Stone to make records with her brother Angus. Their work together is consistently popular, more so than their work apart it seems, and everyone needs to eat.
Which is fine whether you’re a lover or a hater: if people made artistic and financial decisions based on the views of blowhard critics like, um, me …well, god help us all.
But their musical differences have always struck me as stark rather than complementary. More importantly though, not just stark but limiting on her who right from the start seemed the more adventurous, the more odd of the two. It’s not that she’s a weirdo and he’s a square – too simplistic, and wrong - but compared with her usually more idiosyncratic solo work, on Angus & Julia Stone albums her songs still operate within relatively polite lines.
Forget that this time.
Sixty Summers is funkier and freer, looser in appearance but actually more focused in its intent. It’s far more sensual and far more open about its emotions of all shades – anger is a visitor here and desire is a resident; equivocating mildness is not. And there’s little sense that oddness has been applied to separate itself; the quirks of each song feel intrinsic and rise naturally.
The back-of-the-room brass and front-of-mind percussion in Free set up a back and forth that replays, or underscores, the mixed mind of the lyrics which offers temptation to let everything go and indulge, but at the time flashes warning signs – intentionally or not.
Linking those twin poles initially is a bassline that wants to rumble, and then a sluicegates guitar that feels both Adrian Belew-ish and St Vincent-like. It’s nice and nasty but brief, yet it confirms the principles of the song that might have been unspoken before then. Likewise, the mix of feather-light vocals and the stomp of the rhythm in Fire In Me comes together through the aegis of the predatory undertone of the keyboard and punctuating synth brass that make it clear that this is a song circling a dancefloor with some mixed purposes.
St Vincent, aka Annie Clark, is a co-producer/adviser alongside Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman, and it may be that beside the sonic elements reminiscent of their own work that pop up across Sixty Summers, their biggest impact here is in encouraging Stone to go that little bit further with her songs. Even if the song might not look like it has that in it at first, like the percolating rhythmic pop of Substance that might be dismissed as straight at first glance, but sneaks into your consciousness over time.
The album’s opener, Break, is a kinetic, Latinesque number that reminds me of the album Clark made with David Byrne, mixing brass with electronic tools, making moves that felt all-hips but not fixed on the beat. With Break it’s all upfront it seems, but there’s a complexity to the song that slowly reveals itself. Much later in the album, Queen draws from some similar sources but this time the Latin seeps through its jazz tones rather than its dance, and Break’s optimism is replaced with something more sober. But it feels like a natural companion – emotionally as much as musically – and it’s at this point that some of that earlier song’s complexity finds a companion home.
Taking some of that brassiness, but this time playing it as blurts of ‘60s colour in a song that otherwise is a modern lightly electro pop song, is the sonic signifier in the title track. But in fact it is the subtle lines between expectation and realisation, between the idea that we might just waste our time here and the plan to live like it’s not a foregone conclusion, which are at the heart of the song.
And they’re not easy lines to travel emotionally/lyrically. But it’s an important route to take because immediately afterwards, the slowly blowing in the wind ballad We All Have works its way into a nuanced questioning of exactly what it is we are here for. How adult.
And if you’re going to do adulting, if you’re going to do a song about adults coming to some understanding of their place – or the absence of one – in life, you really can’t close the deal better than to draft Matt Berninger. The contrast between Stone’s delicate upper reach and Berninger’s troubled depths reinforces both overt and hidden messages in this early run of songs.
Even Heron, which is not much more than a mood piece laid over a low burbling keyboard bed, picks itself up with a slinky groove and some easy jazz guitar, while Unreal opens as straightforward R&B but plays with an occupants of interplanetary craft treatment on the backing vocals, and then slowly begins to unwind.
Not bad. And they’re the (relative) second graders on the album. Which suggests this album’s long gestation – it’s been five years in the making, though it’s nine years, and two Angus and Julia Stone albums, since her last solo record – has paid dividends.
Or was it the freedom to be purely J Stone?