ALBUM REVIEW: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever a welcome ray of sunshine on ‘Sideways to New Italy’

Listening to Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is like taking a glimpse at a bygone indie era, where bands with three guitarists/singers, a melodic, jangly sound, and a kind of nervous, insistent energy were par for the course. But those defining traits (and strengths) of the Melbourne, Australia band are now novelties in modern, big-league indie rock – so much so, they are even sources of acclaim. Emerging with a fully defined, classic sound the band describes as “tough pop/soft punk,” the five-piece group honed its impact over two strong EPs and an excellent debut album, 2018’s Hope Downs. Worldwide praise, and global tours, soon followed.

There’s no shortage of stories from musicians about the disorienting effects of traveling the world and its impact on relationships and routines. Those feelings inform the bulk of RBCF’s sophomore album, Sideways to New Italy. Over 10 songs, the band searches for familiarity, connection, and home, personified by the New Italy in the album’s title – a town of less than 200 people in rural Australia that, according to the album’s press release, was “founded by Venetian immigrants in the late-1800s and now serves as something of a living monument to Italians’ contribution to Australia.” To Tom Russo, one of the band’s three songwriter-vocalist-guitarists with Joe White and Fran Keaney, the town is a personification of a very human feeling: the search for “home somewhere alien… trying to create utopia in a turbulent and imperfect world.”

Sideways to New Italy is a warm, comfortable album that, if not a vision of utopia, certainly feels welcoming. The kinetic energy that defined the band’s first three releases – always controlled but slightly nervous, the aural equivalent to tapping your foot absentmindedly but insistently as you work – is here but rolled off a bit. In its place is an uptick in a very Australian, “no worries” kind of languidness that has always been part of the RBCF’s sound. 

Relaxed vibes only extend so far – the lovely, slightly dazed ballad “Sunglasses At The Wedding” is the only true downtempo tune here. The band has always had a caffeinated motorik pulse running through their music, and that secret weapon of rhythmic insistence is evident throughout. “Falling Thunder” could be a Real Estate song with its phased guitars and leisurely feel, but it’s hard driving in a way that band is not; an outro solo further dispels any lingering comparisons between the two groups. “Beautiful Steven” has an underlying funkiness from bassist Joe Russo and drummer Marcel Tussie; their capacity for a groove propels the slightly off-kilter “The Only One.” Opener “The Second Of The First,” “She’s There,” lead single “Cars in Space”: each pushes onward but doesn’t feel wired, with the latter’s freewheeling jamming a welcome change of pace on the first side of music.

The moments where the band opens up their sound and lets the three-guitar attack breathe make Sideways to New Italy truly shine. “Cameo” has a melodic line a bit like Suede, but nothing else about it is glammy – its slightly acute feel nods at fellow countrymen The Go-Betweens while stretching itself out more than the indie pop legends ever did. “Not Tonight” has interlocking guitars galore to go with a Flying Nun-esque slackness; closing track “The Cool Change” has a nostalgic feel and a plenty of jammy passages, but also a sense of peace.

Sideways to New Italy ultimately feels like a word Keaney used to describe the album to Stereogum – centered. “It’s the sound of us,” said Tom Russo in the same interview. “We worked through all the songs together, we tried not to overwrite the original ideas… I feel like it’s the most complete document of us in a room.” For a band as road-tested and tightknit as Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, that contentedness feels quite natural, if somewhat counterintuitive. It’s a good look for them. Sideways to New Italy is a welcome ray of sunshine in tumultuous times – a document of togetherness and comfort that serves as a 39-minute salve to a particularly chaotic few months.