A recent conversation online with a female friend turned unexpectedly heavy. By chance — or, not really by chance, since time had to be spent with A Book Like This for this review — an Angus & Julia Stone song, “Choking”, played. In a faint nod to Regina Spektor, Julia sang: “We’re like statues from different cities”. We chatted from these diametrically opposed positions, jousting; “You’ve got it all figured out / What will be, will be”. An elaborate joke out of intersecting-film references followed, “Don’t quote me another phrase”. “I don’t want your sympathy”, she replied — or was it Julia?
We signed off, in that weird no man’s land of boy-girl relations. One thing seemed true, at least: Julia Stone sounded more wounded than either of us.
This Australian brother-sister duo came to prominence in their home country in 2006, when their particular combination of warm acoustic guitar and distinctive vocal style caught the mood of a summer; their debut, released locally in 2007, raised enough profile the band’s now mentioned often in the same breath as Jack Johnson or Donovan Frankenreiter. Nettwerk picked up the album for a US release, and though you might scoff at it as old news, this music sounds as soulful now as it did a couple of years ago.
A Book Like This, recorded partly in the Stones’ living room in Sydney and partly in Travis musician Fran Healy’s house in London, has the soft edges of an amateur recording: The vocals blend in at the edges, and the percussion’s not always crisp but has a brushed imprecision. On a rootsy, organic album mainly built of acoustic guitars and snare, with sparring cello and other strings, the imprecision’s something charming. One can imagine, with a bit bigger budget and a more focused producer, a product as polished and pop directed as Spektor’s Begin to Hope.
The best songs on A Book Like This, like “Choking”, mine the emotive moment like the best singer-songwriters. Also, the best songs are the ones Julia sings. Yes, she sounds a lot like Joanna Newsom, but her emotive, sincere voice suits the casual instrumentation. Angus, on the other hand, has a much more conventional voice — smooth in the style of Jason Mraz or John Mayer — but when he sings, the songs seem to dissolve into the background.
Still, together they make some sweet music. “Paper Aeroplane”, one of the early singles, has the freshness of a Lior song — undeniably familiar in tone but just as effective. And “Hollywood”, the trickiest song on the album, wins on two levels. It begins as a litany against Hollywood endings (“They all would have been killed in The Sound of Music” and “She wouldn’t have made it to shore, the Little Mermaid”) and breaks down into the severe hope it might happen for her, as well. It’s beautiful stuff.
A Book Like This may not make a huge splash in the US — it doesn’t fit the mold to be boosted online or probably even heard much outside the odd college radio station — but if you’re Gchatting, and you’re thinking about you+me, listen to “Choke”. You might want to listen some more.