Melodic, laconic and with enough electric guitar crunch for children who grew up in the post-grunge era, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever emerged from a vibrant Melbourne scene in the mid-2010s. Two well-crafted EPs followed a series of videos assembled from found footage and posted to YouTube, and they became one of the few Australian bands signed to Sub Pop.
Talk Tight is a seven-track, 29-minute mini-album that opens with a clever Crowded House joke in the title “Wither With You.” Otherwise, the band doesn’t have any obvious Crowded House lineage, but there is a clear and pronounced link to bands like Orange Juice (whom they’ve covered), R.E.M.’s jangliest early days, Pavement’s slacker vibe and, of course, the Go-Betweens,who are clearly a dominant influence. Indeed, that band’s Grant McClennan-Robert Forster pairing is a possible antecedent for Rolling Blackouts’ division of lead songwriting and singing duties among three equally talented members: Fran Keaney, Tom Russo and Joe White. (Tom’s younger brother Joe is on bass; Marcel Tussie is the drummer.) The three writers all play electric and acoustic guitars, and the sound of Talk Tight is dominated by that mix of jangle and crunch. “Wither With You” is a laconic but quietly brutal kiss-off with fragmentary lyrics of romantic disappointments in the midst of a go-nowhere economy. “Heard You’re Moving” is a quiet masterpiece that shows what the band has learned from countrymen like Paul Kelly and McLennan-Forster. The frenetic jangle of “Clean Slate” sounds like a late-’80s Bats single, while the rueful “Career” has guitar solos that somehow seem both slashing and polite.
The French Press is brief — just six songs — but even better than Talk Tight, especially the sparkling title track, whose title refers to both Parisian media and a device to brew coffee. “I’m alright if you ask me / but you never do” opens Tom Russo’s lyric, and it emerges that he is in dialogue with his brother Jim, who responds in the lyrics, wrangling over knotty issues of brotherly affection and rivalry over a bad cellphone connection from the other side of the world. The French Press doesn’t let up either, with Russo’s helpless romantic desire in “Julie’s Place” and White’s instantly gripping “Sick Bug” (not the borrowed Blue Öyster Cult opening from “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” but not not that opening either). The mid-tempo “Dig Up” is all sweet acoustic guitars and melodies, into which romantic discord and electric guitar feedback intrude, spoiling the pleasant reverie with the dark cloud of an impending breakup.
Hope Downs is formally the band’s first “full length”record, but it runs only eight minutes longer than Talk Tight. If not for the Australian twang, the jangle and propulsion of “Talking Straight” could have come from Peter Buck and Bill Berry on Reckoning or Lifes Rich Pageant. Like many of the best Rolling Blackouts C.F. tracks, the lyrics are both urgent and vague, full of the electric charge and doubt of a sudden attraction: “All day, I listen out for Jenny’s old coupé / Midnight blue, it’s faded, but she’s always been true // Holiday, I haven’t seen you since, yeah, I had to get away / Window pane, electricity illuminates the rain.” The concise “Time in Common” and “The Hammer” owe a clear debt to the Go-Betweens; “Bellarine” is propelled by Joe Russo’s bassline. “An Air Conditioned Man” is all frenetic Robert Quine-inspired intertwined guitars and urban ennui, fading into an unexpectedly gentle (or resigned) conclusion. For a band that tends to lean in on relationships and interpersonal dynamics, “Mainland” offers sociopolitical commentary — a searing critique of how Australia and Europe treat refugees and asylum seekers, locking them up in sweltering detention centers while vacationers sun on the beaches. But it’s all so tuneful that the song’s fierceness can be neglected, to the listener’s detriment.
Sideways to New Italy is no longer than its predecessor — another tight 10-song record — but less rewarding. The guitar work is still impressive but the songs are less catchy. The sweet singsong harmonies in the chorus of “Falling Thunder” penetrate the crosscutting guitars. “She’s There” includes what seem to be two overt quotes from Paul Kelly (“She’s Rare”) and the Go-Betweens (“Spring Rain”), which I guess is nice if you’re Australian. “Beautiful Steven” sounds like a Church B-side, and I mean that in a nice way. The record is fine overall, with “Cameo” and “Cars in Space” adding highlights, but Sideways has fewer sharp lyrics and memorable melodies than Hope Downs or the previous EPs.
“In the Capital” is a brief 2019 standalone single on Sub Pop; the B-side, “Read My Mind,” is the better track, but both lack the lyrical coherence of the band’s best material.