Angus Stone, Sydney-based songwriter, primarily made his name with records he made with his sister under the Angus & Julia Stone moniker. Smooth Big Cat is the second studio album put out under his solo side project Dope Lemon. Dope Lemon veers off from the sweet and consonant sounds he has been putting out with his sibling. This project sees Stone less polished, less primed for heavy radio play – instead leaning into lax slacker-jams, each song a hazy, drugged-out sprawl into the next.
“Hey You” is sun-tinted indie-folk. The sleepy atmosphere is ushered in by its walking bass line and cozy guitar twang. It’s sonically pleasant. It’s best, if this song is to be fully enjoyed, to just view Stone’s voice as a means to adding texture. On too many tracks he does not show himself as a particularly nuanced or substantive lyricist. While some lines are more on the passable side of things, other phrases he sings are simply too clunky to be ignored: “Feel a little tipsy, feel a little tipsy, fumble for your keys, try to get the bottle, baby. This is where you dance and be all cheeky.” He does showcase a knack for vivid imagery and respectable storytelling, rendering his weaker lyrical efforts even more bewildering.
“Salt & Pepper”, the second on the track listing, features prominent use of a phaser effect. The song creeps in with Stone’s understated vocal delivery. The druggy exterior comes thanks to its smoky lead guitar and xylophone. This song puts both of Stone’s best and worst tendencies up front and centre. On one hand, Stone can suck the listener into intoxicating atmospheres when his arrangement is at its most explorative. On the other hand, however, is Stone’s unfortunate weakness in guiding tracks through an exciting trajectory. Many songs here suffer from their meandering nature.
“Hey Little Baby” starts off with a guitar intro that wouldn’t be too out of place on many hit Motown songs. That gradually blends into the feathery acoustic part that carries throughout the tune. With his voice and guitar playing, he does his best to channel Kurt Vile. It’s a narrative about two partners feeling gradually more isolated from one another – it’s one of the better-written songs on the album.
“Lonely Boy Paradise” is more melodically focused than the other songs here, mainly as a result of the yearning qualities in Stone’s voice. Like many great folk songs are, Stone is sharply geographically here, listing off tangible images in a stream-of-conscious manner.
“Give Me Honey” rolls on with a pleasant strut with whirring synths and seductive keys. “Dope & Smoke”, a song making no attempts to hide its meaning, could have been a B-side on Abraxas (1970) considering its whaling leads recalling Santana’s most inspired ideas. To take this comparison further, Latin style percussion plays a prominent role in the track’s rhythm section. Stone’s voice floats in the mix with a hazy whisper.
Smooth Big Cat’s hardest-hitting left hook comes in the way of its title track. A steady motorik-like drum beat lays the foundation for sepia toned string samples. Its krautrock inspired feel is made complete with its droning guitars. These elements adapt to his sound well in a very interesting and compelling way; exploration like this should definitely be his aim for future records.
He rocks a little harder on the following tunes. “Midnight Slow”, with its fiery intro, is all together more uptempo comparatively to the rest of the tracks on the album. It flows well as a companion piece into the slightly darker “Mechanical Bull”. With its pounding kick throughout, this track has a danceable quality to it. And while that is true, it simultaneously also possesses a creeping energy, somewhat reminiscent of a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds tune.
“Hey Man, Don’t Look at Me Like That”, with its harmonica intro wrapped up in tape hiss, takes on a lo-fi, almost demo-like quality. The approach to this tune sounds very similar to the best tunes of Daniel Johnston. While the sound here is at its lowest in clarity, with full intention, it has the most pleasant and affirming melodies on the record. Some female giggles can be heard towards the end of the track, perhaps of a partner or love interest of the song’s main protagonist. These two voices end the track on a comforting whistle duet.
Smooth Big Cat is not necessarily a bad record – at times it can be quite nice. The main issue here is how much Dope Lemon sounds like a one-trick pony. There is not enough variation or experimentation to be seen as a fully engaging, exciting project. Most of these songs lose their momentum halfway through as they often find themselves aimlessly drifting on. One can’t help but wonder what could have been had there been more of an effort at chiseling these songs down more thoroughly.
Smooth Big Cat is released Friday 12th July via BMG.