Julia Stone’s second solo album applies the same gossamer-voiced, melancholic-folk template of the first album and her catalogue of songs with brother Angus, but has some extra factors at work.
For one, the stakes have changed – whereas the Memory Machine was a fairly under-the-radar release landing in the midst of national Angus-and-Julia fever, By the Horns is an ambitious outpouring of solo material. Clearly intended to make more than a ripple, the album cranks up the production with crisper and more finely detailed instrumentation.
Another major factor is the shift from melancholy towards drama. You can picture nearly every tune on this album – all ballads of one kind or another – being played over the heart-rending complication scene in a rom-com. With Stone’s voice always craning and crashing emotively, you might forget these are essentially hopeful messages (“love will find a way to be what love is...”)
We’re not calling Stone the next Dido or anything, but the formula can be clichéd and cloying at times, as in the piano-heavy ‘Breaking’. Thankfully, other songs achieve a better balance, like the dreamy ‘With the Light’, and Leonard Cohen-esque closer ‘The Line that Ties Me’.
The surprise highlight, though, is the second track – a cover of the National’s ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’. A fresh, pulsing interpretation that’s more Americana than the original, the track does great favours for Stone’s voice and hints at an exciting new direction – away from dour nu-folk, towards cowgirl-power stompers of a Neko Case kind.
Until then, we’ll be here, glass of red in hand, digesting these ten new anthems-for-introspective-moods.