For his debut solo record Angus Stone should’ve stepped out from his day job, writes MAX EASTON.
In 2009 Angus Stone had his first attempt at a side project. It was titled Lady of the Sunshine, and while that name has all the trappings of the same pained cliches trodden by the Stones on albums prior, it did what a side project is supposed to do. It exhibited a new side of Angus Stone's artistry and gave him an outlet to explore the realm of noise and swagger; something he had long hidden behind the meek grin he swayed to beside his sister Julia.
The record was almost universally ignored, and in the worse case, panned as a dumb attempt at fleeing everything that was just about to make the Stones one of Australian music's most bankable assets. On that record, a lethargic stoner jam wedged somewhere in the middle of that album was left behind. It was called 'Big Jet Plane', later seeing the light of day on Angus & Julia Stone's A Book Like This; this time, with Angus' daisy-chain torn up and a string arrangement laid in its place. It went on to win triple j's Hottest 100, and from the top of the ARIA charts, it became the soundtrack to a generation of short-lived pubescent relationships across the country. So, on his return to the solo arena (now performing under his own name), it seems Angus Stone has learned from his mistakes. On Broken Brights he teases the sounds he explored on Lady of the Sunshine, but for the most part treads the same folk territory he does alongside his sister.
There are, however, signs of a romantic and considered record – they're just obscured by far too much lackadaisical sappiness. Tracks like 'Bird on the Buffalo' see Stone take his infamously relaxed persona outside his comfort zone of chilled confessions of love. It's still a dawdle, yes, but one that gives itself over to complicated emotions hiding under the surface; his mumbled analogies underscored by the gritting tension of the electric guitar he hasn't pulled out of the case since Lady of the Sunshine. 'It Was Blue,' sits out of place on the record as its only direct threat. It's not just another swoon marked by faux earnesty, but reveals Angus gnashing his teeth; welcome evidence of a fire burning somewhere within his calm exterior.
Tracks like the tale of cross-continental promiscuity of 'Monsters' may have obvious influences, but at least they toy with something we haven't heard before. Even his almost ill-advised impersonation of Dylan's growl on 'Only a Woman' ("Yeah, you walked in reeeEEEEeeeeling") is welcome, both acting as breaks from the sappy folk that takes over for the rest of the album. But to find these moments of light, you have to persevere with the type of music that's fobbed of as “inoffensive”; the kind that Neil Young famously looks back on with disgust as the stuff that kept him "in the middle of the road". And for a record that's inspired from years spent on the road, he strays to the edge of the tarmac far too rarely.
It's when Stone does what he's expected to do that this record loses its charm. The album has barely begun when he's rounding out a song with a “la la la”, or optimistically interrupting his singing about lost love with a whistle breakdown. Later, he smiles through lost love with a whistle (again) on the alcoholic fairytale 'The Wolf and the Butler' and emotes, "Be what you be and all that you are", over a sea of hand drums taken straight from the Byron hinterland in a saccharine stab at espousing self-help.
The best solo projects are generally works that distill the unique aspects of the artist, trimming back the excesses of the main band or dwelling in the mind of the individual. Gareth Liddiard's Strange Tourist pulled his often-obscured anecdotes away from the clamour of The Drones to highlight his violent poetry, while Joe McKee's recent Burning Boy saw him rollick in lethargic excess away from the pressures of Snowman. For Angus Stone to have made a great solo record, he too needed to step out from his day job. Broken Brights threatens to exist as an interesting and stoic listen, but more often than not it’s the same beige dawdling that took Angus & Julia to the top of the charts.
‘Broken Brights’ is out now through Desert Harvest/EMI.
Listen to 'Broken Brights':