Back at the beginning of the 1990s, two mixed-gender Australian bands looked set to have long and successful careers ahead of them. Falling Joys and the Clouds shared many things: most often stages, including at festivals, but also management and female singer-songwriters – two, in Clouds’ case – with unique voices and visions. Both peaked early with classic debut albums, but were unable to sustain their momentum.
Now both are back, on a joint tour (delayed halfway through by a bout of food poisoning suffered by the Clouds’ Tricia Young) that’s all but sold out. There’s clear affection for both bands – the Triffid is full when Falling Joys take the stage just before 8.30pm – but there’s also some cobwebs to be shaken off: the power-pop gem Shelter lurches to a premature conclusion, and Puppy Drink has a false start before the band realises they’re in the wrong key.
Not that anyone minds too much. The crowd – mostly peers of the band, though a few parents have brought their teenage offspring along – is just happy to have them back. As we should be: Suzie Higgie’s songs still exude warmth and depth, and while the songs from 1990’s Wish List still shine brightest (Shot In Europe; Jennifer), the selections from the following albums Psychohum and Aerial underline how much her voice has been missed.
But none so much as their beloved single Lock It, which elicits a cheer that brings a clearly moved Higgie to a momentary pause. It’s a timeless, life-affirming song that captures the vulnerability of love’s first consummation with big open chords in the chorus and lyrics that act as a sort of female complement, or counterpoint, to Hunters & Collectors’ Throw Your Arms Around Me. Like that song, it wasn’t a hit, but it feels like a standard now.
The Clouds are less reliant on nostalgia. There’s a new single, Beautiful Nothingness, following a EP from last year, Zaffre. And from the moment they hit the stage, they’re tight, precise and muscular: the combined voices and harmonies of Jodi Phillis and Young have lost nothing, Dave Easton is one of Australia’s more unassuming guitar heroes (though Phillis has more than a few tricks up her sleeve, too) and Raph Whittingham is a powerhouse on drums.
When they first appeared, the Clouds occasionally suffered from unflattering and unfair comparisons to the Pixies. There were superficial similarities, but with Phillis and Young out front, the literary and psychological bent of Phillis’ lyrics especially, and the unusual, shifting time signatures of their songs, the band had more in common with that band’s Boston contemporaries Throwing Muses, and with Australia’s Go-Betweens.
It would be easy for them to rely on songs from Penny Century, released in October 1991, but we only get a few tracks from that album: Wednesday Night, Foxes Wedding and the closing Hieronymus. The rest of the set spans the remainder of their underrated later career, opening with the rapid-fire smash and grab of Here Now, from their overlooked 1996 album Futura.
“This song isn’t about dicks,” Young says by way of introduction to Bower Of Bliss, which is actually about, well, the exact opposite: where Lock It is all sweetness, Phillis challenges a lover to “come and slip downstream to the root of your fears”. On one hand, it’s a surprise the song achieved moderate Triple J airplay, on the other it’s a shame its magnificent glam-rock strut wasn’t a huge hit, and it’s the highlight of the set.