I picked up some great releases by the Australian artists after working through Double J’s Best of 2021 list, including a couple of impressive debuts and an intriguing musical re-invention.
Like most people, I’ve known Julia Stone as a half of the sibling duo Angus & Julia Stone, whose indie folk is easy on the ear but never really grabbed me all that much. On this solo album, however, sister Stone clearly meant to shake up the whole twee starry-eyed folk image, with the help of co-producer Annie Clark a.k.a. St. Vincent. You really couldn’t have wished for a better person in your corner if you decided to get weird and make some left-field art-pop as your next career move.
To be honest I’m not in love with Stone’s voice, which is a tad on the thin side and has little to distinguish it from your typical wispy girlish vocal that’s pretty much ubiquitous in indie folk. However her determination to experiment and get outside the comfort zone is truly admirable and results in some fresh-sounding, interesting songs. The opener Break, with its bizarre jerky rhythms, bright horn arrangement and Stone’s vocals bordering on spoken word, really made me sit up and notice; it’s followed by Stone dabbling in vocoder, disco beats, rumbling synths, even a little bit of glam rock on Fire In Me.
There’s a dreamlike, ethereal feeling to the album which the cover art captures really well (this is one of those times when I wish I collected vinyl instead of CDs – this cover would look amazing on a bigger scale). I love it when artists surprise me and I genuinely didn’t see this re-invention coming.
For whatever reason, while I could name tons of individual rap/hip-hop songs I really love, as a musical style it rarely does it for me across the length of a record, an odd Kanye West album aside. So I was genuinely surprised by how much I liked this vibrant debut from a young Yolngu rapper, who hails from the Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and raps both in English and his Yolngu Matha tongue.
Maybe it’s just hard not to be won over by the sheer joyful energy of the album that plays like one big party from start to finish. Songs like Survive do occasionally take it into a darker, more political territory, but even so the overall vibe remains overwhelmingly positive and upbeat. Elsewhere, there are infectious beats, poptastic choruses, throwbacks to old-school funk and reggae, flashy synths, and a host of guest appearances who add to the party feel – especially JessB on hip-shaking Meditjin, probably my personal favourite track. I’m really pumped to see Baker Boy live later this year!
As I discovered later, this marvellously accomplished debut had a difficult journey: after Martha Marlow had already started to work on the album, she was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, which forced her to press pause on music and focus on her health instead. She did finish the record in 2021, and what an exquisite release it is, showing Marlow as a fully formed artist. Her mature, introspective songwriting brings to mind the likes of Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling, combining tuneful, shimmering indie-pop with luscious classical strings, folk and jazz. It’s the kind of relaxing album that’s lovely to chill out with on a summer afternoon.
Fun fact: I didn’t realise that I first heard Martha Marlow’s gorgeous, delicate voice all the way back in 2014, when Qantas picked her to record a version of Randy’s Newman’s Feels Like Home for their marketing campaign.