Album Review: Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways to New Italy

[Sub Pop; 2020]

It’s not particularly surprising that Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever are releasing a new album a little under two years since their debut full-length. They’re all about momentum; by their standards, last year was an off year – and they still managed to release a stopgap single in the midst of touring the absolute hell out of Hope Downs. They’ve been gathering steam since their debut EP Talk Tight landed in 2016, and show no signs of slowing down. In keeping with that, they went to work on their second album as soon as they could, and the resulting album is an attempt to capture their bombastic live sound.

Sideways to New Italy is informed by their experiences on the road as well as their performances, but it’s far from the token ‘album about being on tour’ you might expect from five people who spent a solid year doing exactly that. The Melbourne quintet tap into the listless feelings of constant motion only to tie it into the album’s larger narrative: how to reconnect with the idea, feeling, or physical location of home. The New Italy of its title – a tiny village in New South Wales – was founded by Venetian immigrants in the 1880s, offering them a fresh start in an area alien to them. This concept of starting over under new circumstances while relying on old habits is threaded throughout Sideways to New Italy, both musically and lyrically.

As for bottling their live energy on record, opting to work with an outside producer for the first time in their career certainly helped. RBCF hooked up with Burke Reid (Courtney Barnett, Julia Jacklin, DZ Deathrays), and that combination has an instant impact. The album comes out swinging with “The Second of the First”, which immediately zeroes in on an altogether ‘bigger’ sound, before going out of bounds for a lofty spoken-word detour. It’s charged with enough kinetic energy to power the rest of the record, and so it goes; even at its most laid-back, as on “Sunglasses at the Wedding” and the steady build of “Cameo”, there’s a sense of urgency bubbling away underneath; the streamlined nature of Hope Downs has been traded for more heft and willingness to experiment.

“Cars in Space” luxuriates in its extended instrumental bridge, taking its cue from the exploratory title track of 2017’s The French Press EP, while “Falling Thunder” flips the script around the three-minute mark, throwing the listener for a loop with an unexpectedly restless coda. It’s an arresting moment that aligns with the song’s vivid lyrics evoking the wistful passage of time, referencing “a stationary boy in a moving daydream.” “The Only One” pictures a “new world that looks exactly the same,” directly addressing the disorientation and placelessness of constant travel (“Now I drive the ring roads / Sing my songs / Suspended in the air / I could be anywhere”) over a remarkably direct soundtrack; it’s one of the album’s best examples of RBCF broadening their horizons while refining the elements they brought to fruition on their debut album.

Throughout Sideways to New Italy, hooks come thick and fast, and the three-guitar interplay that RBCF have made their calling card is proudly on display. Striking the balance between progression into new musical territory and refinement of their established sound, they come into their own on a record that presents a souped-up version of the band; Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Mark 2, if you will. No doubt that momentum they’ve built up will take them to plenty of new places when they can get back to playing live next year; they set out to capture that feeling on record this time around, and they’ve succeeded, with an album that makes Hope Downs feel like a warmup. After all this travelling, they’ve finally arrived.