Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever make music that’s defined by guitars. Shimmering guitars. Jangling guitars. Guitars that sparkle and scratch and chime. In fact, they employ more guitars than the standard indie rock band (though not as many as Diarrhea Planet). With three strummers—Fran Keaney, Tom White and Joe Russo—each Rolling Blackouts song is an exercise in building up layers of gorgeous, dreamy sound. On paper, it probably sounds complicated; most bands probably wouldn’t know what to do with a third guitar player, and most bands who aren’t Iron Maiden shouldn’t make the attempt. Yet on their debut album Hope Downs, the Australian group uses their combined talent to create melodic pop music that sounds simpler and more direct than it is.
Where the band’s glorious haze of guitars made last year’s French Press EP—their first release through Sub Pop—a promising start, Hope Downs clarifies that sound, giving it a greater potency and sharpness. It’s a more pristine set of songs, for one, the sparkle and chime of their riffs and chords even brighter, with a greater sense of urgency and immediacy. They were already good at what they do, but they’ve refined a signature aesthetic into one that’s essentially perfected. To say nothing of the songwriting on Hope Downs, you can drop the needle on essentially any track here and it’s going to sound sublime.
It’s not just the sound of the record, however wonderful it is. This still-young Australian group is growing and progressing quickly as songwriters, and Hope Downs is an exceptionally strong batch. There are few moments quite as strong as “Talking Straight,” a driving single propelled by a hypnotic post-punk rhythm and a soaring chorus. Leadoff track “An Air Conditioned Man” starts off the record curtly, almost as if they were already in the middle of a song when the listener checked in, but the interplay of guitars here is at its strongest, each of the three players moving at their own individual momentum yet adding up to a gorgeous whole. “Bellarine” is the closest the band comes to punk, their brilliant sheen giving way to some slightly harsher riffs, while “Exclusive Grave” is simply perfectly dreamy pop.
There’s an agitation to many of the songs on Hope Downs, even as the band presents that restlessness as mellifluously as possible. And the lyrics more explicitly reveal the angst underneath the gauzy surface. “An Air Conditioned Man” juxtaposes natural serenity in lines like “All the tall trees were still lining the avenue/Hanging there like old friends do” up against depictions of a manufactured paradise: “her air conditioned home…in an air conditioned city.” “Mainland” cuts even deeper, juxtaposing the ongoing global refugee crisis by drawing a parallel to the island where Russo’s grandparents were born: “We’ve talked about the land of our fore-mothers/ Now that we’ve shut the gates, it would be funny if it didn’t make you cry.” Yet there’s also a kind of romanticism in the band’s questioning, particularly in “Talking Straight,” which proposes, “I wanna know where the silence comes from, where space originates.” Put another way: Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm.
Hope Downs is a work of balance and contrast. It’s frequently beautiful even at its most agitated, and there’s often a sense of clarity to be found even in the band’s moments of alienation and uncertainty. Even in their hypnotic haze of guitars there’s a sense of turning disorder into beauty, of making sense out of chaos. Yet there’s a looseness that remains essential to what they do, a freewheeling sensibility that prevents them from becoming rigid even when the performances are at their most taut. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever make something complicated sound comfortable; it’s not miraculous, but it sure sounds like it.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.