LIVE REVIEW: Falls @ Bowery Ballroom

The Falls

Performances by Australian group Falls revolve around the vocal magic trick that happens when Simon Rudston-Brown and Melinda Kirwin harmonize. Lightly highlighted with a string section, Rudston-Brown’s guitar and the occasional melodica solo from Kirwin, Falls create a lush and mysteriously reassuring soundtrack to the development–and breakdown–of their relationship. The two were once a couple, and, when they began playing music, found that writing songs together was a natural extension of their extra-musical connection. Just before recording their debut EP Hollywood, though, the pair fought, made up, and then broke up for good, continuing to play and write together all the while.

Most of the audience gathered to hear Falls open for Delta Rae at the Bowery Ballroom last week seemed to know the story–judging by how they were able to sing along to the words as the pair performed, Falls has already accumulated a fair following since releasing their EP as Hollywood in Australia last year, and as Into The Fire in the U.S. this month–but even if no one had known Kirwin and Rudston-Brown’s backstory, their on-stage rapport would have been obvious. The duo were visually almost opposites–Kirwin stood front and center a little shakily, thin and bird-like in a white dress that hung down her forearms as she gripped the microphone stand. She handled most of the between-song banter–peering smilingly at the crowd from behind a thick set of dark bangs–while Rudston-Brown stood beside her with his guitar. He was a sharp, kind of rugged dresser with a shiny black belt buckle and a brown vest, like a particularly dapper cowboy.

The string section seated behind the duo neatly held down their parts so precisely they seemed polite.  The orchestration sounded classical and complexly put together, supplying an emotional surge for each chorus that was well-timed and pretty, if occasionally a little saccharine. The already-sentimental lyrics were better bolstered by the sparse instrumentation of Rudston-Brown’s guitar, and on the songs performed without the strings–most of them in the first half of the group’s set–the pared-down, acoustic feel of the performance actually heightened the emotion, which was palpable from the duo’s vocal harmony alone.

“Girl That I Love” was a special highlight of the performance, coming about halfway through the set. Rudston-Brown and Kirwin have said it’s still a tough one to perform. “There’s the girl that I love,” Rudston-Brown sing-songed through the opening bars, “There’s the girl that makes me mad as hell.” It was a large-scale, complicated performance that expanded and ebbed in mood, alternating between mournful verses and the tidal, instrument-heavy refrain.

But even through their darker material, Kirwin and Rudston-Brown were all smiles on stage. Their career, while already established in Australia, is still shaping in the U.S., and they were visibly thrilled to be touring. They whipped through their mature, expansive set list with the skill of a much more established band, holding attention with their music’s quietly powerful presence.

EP REVIEW: Falls “Into The Fire”

Classifying Australia’s Falls as sweet, love-driven indie folk makes them sound pretty bland. In fact, that’s a good description of what they’re like at their worst: more often, the duo—consisting of Melinda Kirwin and Simon Rudston-Brown, who met as conservatory students in Sydney—makes music that’s much livelier than standard fare. Their slim debut EP Into The Fire, released in Australia last year under the title of Hollywood, takes Kirwin and Rudston-Brown’s close vocal harmony as its foundation, rolling elaborate string arrangements and fine-tooth rhythms in with more reflective sections and an abiding undertow of palpable love. Sounds complicated, right?

But the group comes off seasoned beyond their discography. Falls juggles every element of the music into its right place, without breaking a sweat. The album is spectacularly well organized, with rhythmic synchronicity that feels inborn; Kirwin and Rudston-Brown sound like they might be musical twins (more on that later.) Emotionally, too, each song on Into The Fire is hugely ambitious, blitzing through four or five moods in a single track. Many of the lyrics could be taken at least two ways, both of which seem like, even if they might be contradictory elsewhere, they could both be true in the Into The Fire-world. “There’s the woman I want,” Rudston-Brown sings in the opening verse of the catchy—but bait-and-switch devastating– “Girl That I Love,”. “There’s the woman that makes me wanna run away from it all.” After a brief melodica solo that’s cute enough to be the soundtrack to a Michael Cera movie, the vocals launch into much wilder outlands, with a dramatically downward-plodding piano line and crashing rhythms, and a feeling of suddenly being lost.

Elsewhere, in “Hollywood,” Rudston-Brown and Kirwin’s twin vocal lines lean on each other like the twin support beams of an arched bridge, with their tag-team duet structure as the keystone. Operating in parallel lines, the call-and-response style emerges like a prayer each voice is saying for each other, even as their melodies drift apart as the song goes on. The singers’ personalities, and relation to each other, are a strong presence on this track. Regarding their musical project, the two sometimes describe themselves as “barefoot collaborators,” as much best friends as bandmates. That emphasis on their extra-musical bond comes through loud and clear on this collection. Their biography will tell you that that Kirwin and Rudston-Brown were a couple while writing most of the EP, and that when they went to record the tracks—right after they’d broken up—they realized they had documented the story of their relationship.

In principle, I’m leery of couple music’s gimmickry, especially when the love story is already over—if Into The Fire is the story of a relationship that’s now ended, what are they going to write about for their next release?–but the pair say the autobiographical story line emerged organically, nigh unintentionally. The way they’re able to finish each other’s thoughts on this album is pretty spectacular. Some of the best moments on the album come during the sad parts of the songs—the duo has said that “Girl That I Love” can still be pretty tough to perform—when the turmoil in the song gets so wild and devastating, it seems like it must be coming from someplace close to home for the players.

So although the backstory heavily informs the music, it shouldn’t get more attention than the EP itself. Lively and sophisticated, Falls covers impressive ground in only six songs, organizing complicated elements together into beautifully structured pop songs. You can pick up your copy in Into The Fire here, and listen to “Girl That I Love” below: