Album Review: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Endless Rooms

[Sub Pop; 2022]

Don’t let their jangling guitar hooks and vocal harmonies fool you: the Melbourne-based quintet Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have never shied from lyrical depth or sophisticated songwriting. On their early EPs, subjects ranged from the implosion of domestic bliss (“Wither With You”) to the challenges of adult sibling relationships (“The French Press”). The band followed suit on their debut full-length, 2018’s Hope Downs, a bursting thirty-five minute project that struck a balance between the seemingly contradictory elements of their music. Yet on their 2020 LP Sideways to New Italy, that balance shifted. The album was brighter and catchier than any of their previous work but also defanged and a bit predictable. Despite containing a couple of exceptional songs (including “Cars In Space” and “Cameo”), it wasn’t hard to imagine the band trapping themselves in the purgatory of diminishing returns.

Thankfully, the band—consisting of guitarists Fran Keaney, Tom Russo, and Joe White, bassit Joe Russo, and drummer Marcel Tussie—found a way out. Paradoxically, the band has never sounded so anxious or agitated, as if they knew Endless Rooms, their latest album, was a high-stakes project that guaranteed nothing, a sentiment that feels all-too-familiar in 2022. “Tidal River”, the album’s first proper track, is a nervous roller coaster of a song; echoing guitars give way to roaring riffs that evoke an uneasiness at odds with the vacation where the song takes place. The band only goes harder on the dizzying “The Way It Shatters,” where staccato guitar plucks compete with teasing riffs in a wild intensity. The melancholic “Caught Low”, with its drooping rhythm and crying strings, is among the saddest tracks the band has ever recorded.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference is the band’s embrace of atmosphere—Endless Rooms is their first to do so since 2017’s French Press EP. Thirty seconds of squall opens “Dive Deep” before the song finds bearings in thumping percussion and staccato harmonies. The gentle strums and lullaby vocals of “Open Up Your Window” call back to the dream-pop of Galaxie 500. The album’s title and penultimate track offers a spacious moment of introspection, yet is also cut with guitar squall. At times, Endless Rooms feels like the band’s take on a No Age record, where the noise in-between acts as another instrument.

Some of this atmosphere can be attributed to the circumstances that went into making Endless Rooms. During a brief pause in the lockdowns in 2020, the band got together and started playing in ‘The Basin’, a lakeside home of the Russos’ extended family. It was there that, using the material the members had from their lockdown days, the album started coming together. That’s also where “…the ambience seeped in,” as Tom explains. “We ended up including field recordings of fire, rain, and bird sounds.” These recordings open up the album on “Pearl Like You”, but are heard throughout the album; rain opens up the solemn anthem “My Echo”, for example, a choice that sets up the song’s theme of feeling disconnected from those around you.

The ambience serves as a reminder of the inescapability of the looming climate and political threats around us, a theme that also elevates the lyrics of Endless Rooms. References to weather and nature serve at times as lamentations on global warming and others as metaphors for the human condition. “Chase the pill for some relief / As long as you don’t point out / What’s underneath,” goes the verse of “Tidal River”, which hints how people choose to ignore larger issues for immediate satisfaction (or, understandably, escape). Album highlight “Saw You At The Eastern Beach” offers up the album’s most detailed slice of a setting in ruins: “Everyone is on their own / Crumbling boardwalk / Cruise ships are beached.” These details, told over rolling percussion and driving guitar and bass rhythms, are delivered with equal parts frustration and indifference. “We’re not known as an angry band,” says Tom. “But there’s a decent amount of things clearly wrong in this country that permeates some of the songs.”

Yet, underneath the frustration, the anxiousness, the uncertainty, lies an album that succeeds thanks to a band that knows their strengths. Album closer “Bounce Off The Bottom” is among the most musically straightforward tracks here and feels like a callback to their early EP work. The lyrics, centered around an incoming fire, are detailed and ominous; the song’s outro centers on jangling riffs and twinkling glockenspiel strikes. After 11 tracks, this return feels well-earned, but it’s equally refreshing to know the next song we hear from Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever might not be so predictable.