Angus and Julia's sad songs say so much

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      Julia Stone’s melancholy melodies are a counterpoint to her brother Angus’s shiny, happy tunes

      On A Book Like This, Julia Stone makes a pretty good case not only that she’s happiest when the skies are six shades of grey, but that she’s not terribly fond of those who look on the sunny side of life.

      You want a realist? That would be a singer-songwriter who freely admits in her cello-strafed, slow-burn beauty “Hollywood” that she would have liked The Sound of Music a hell of a lot more if everyone had died. As for Cinderella, that no-good bitch should have ended up scrubbing floors until her fingers bled, and the Little Mermaid would have watched Prince Eric hook up with a whore. Such are the grim realities of a world where, as she sings, “Life’s not a happy ending.”

      A Book Like This, the debut disc from the Australian brother-and-sister act Angus and Julia Stone, isn’t all winsomely downbeat angst shot through with streaks of resigned anger. The XX-chromosome half of the group—which includes bassist Clay MacDonald and drummer Mitchell Connelly—handles lead vocals and lyric-writing chores on six of the 13 tracks. The rest are sung by Angus, who, based on sun-warmed indie-folk standouts like “Mango Tree” and “Silver Coin”, seems to be of the opinion that every day is a blessing.

      The siblings aren’t as far apart in their world-views as they might appear on A Book Like This, which manages to charm no matter what emotional vein they are working. Indeed, even if tracks like “Choking” and “Here We Go Again” make Julia seem more melancholy than a month of November Mondays, depressed doesn’t exactly fit as a catch-all description. In fact, the singer couldn’t be more chipper when she picks up the phone in Los Angeles, where she and Angus are about to kick off their first full-on assault on North America.

      “My girlfriend just had a little boy, so I wrote this song for him that was kind of like ”˜The world will love you no matter what, because there’s this great love that exists on the planet,’ ” she says with a laugh. “It was quite an optimistic song, and I felt so weird singing it. It was really strange, because normally what I do comes from a place of sadness. I think what perhaps happens is that, because I am a happy person in my day-to-day existence, writing is how I express the sadness I sometimes feel.”

      If Julia is upbeat these days, it’s because the world continues to discover the considerable charms of A Book Like This. Although the disc hit the streets Down Under over two years ago, it’s only now getting the push in North America. Just released on iTunes, it promptly shot to No. 1 on the singer-songwriter chart, an accomplishment that, unfairly, makes the two sound like they ought to be sipping chai lattes with James Taylor and Jewel. Instead, Angus and Julia Stone seem like they’d rather go record-shopping with Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, and those freaks from CocoRosie.

      Julia gets most of the credit for that, her creaky vocals falling on just the right side of art-damaged. Angus, on the other hand, seems rooted in classic MOR, with his “The Beast” updating America’s “Horse With No Name” for the ’00s, and “Mango Tree” giving you a good idea what Ben Harper might have sounded like if he’d grown up surfing at Burleigh Heads.

      If there was an unofficial fifth member on A Book Like This, that was Fran Healy of the Scottish band Travis. As the record’s producer, he took songs that started out as coffeehouse-friendly fare and turned them into something more. It’s the grand orchestral flourishes in “Wasted”, “Silver Coin”, and “Hollywood” that make A Book Like This a treasure.

      “We went to Fran’s house and played him the songs, just to show him what they were,” Julia says. “It was sort of a performance for him and his wife, even though we were recording them. He then took the recordings and, a week or two later, showed us that he had added on strings and other parts.

      “We thought it was amazing how beautiful the songs suddenly sounded,” she continues. “Because of his history in the music industry, he had access to all these great people. Sally Herbert, who did the string arrangements, lived just down the road from him. From meeting her, we sort of got inspired to put strings on other songs. We probably would have found the idea of layering the songs at some point, but Fran was the guy who really introduced us to that idea this time.”

      And that’s radically changed the way the Stones now approach songwriting, which should ensure something truly great on the in-the-works follow-up to A Book Like This.

      “I’ve been writing for a new record for the past few weeks, and I’m hearing string parts or horn parts,” Julia says. “In the past, those are things that I would never have thought about until later on, when the song was recorded.”

      Which isn’t to say that her work will suddenly become more chipper than Matt & Kim high on the Polyphonic Spree. But then again, if things go as planned on the Stones’ first big tour of America, she might have trouble getting back to the state of mind she was in while writing for A Book Like This.

      “I’m really excited about meeting this person that I’ve been wanting to meet,” she reveals with a giggle. “But I’m too embarrassed to tell you who.”

      Further probing goes nowhere. “Nooo,” Julia says with a squeal. “It’s too embarrassing. It’s a boy, and I have a little bit of a secret crush.”

      Despite her “Hollywood” contention that “Life’s not a happy ending,” here’s hoping that things sometimes work out like they do in the movies.

      Angus and Julia Stone play Richard’s on Richards tonight (March 12).

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