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Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Hope Downs Music Album Reviews

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Hope Downs Music Album Reviews
The “120 Minutes” revivalists trade manic exuberance for panicked agitation on a debut album that applies their infectious brand of motorik jangle rock to lovelorn ruminations and geopolitical laments.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever are either the world’s most meandering pop band or its most efficient jam band. Either way, for their purposes, jamming is as much a lyrical strategy as musical one. Over the course of two excellent EPs, the Melbourne quintet has mastered an adrenalized, infectious brand of motorik jangle rock that’s both warmly nostalgic and thrillingly unpredictable. The band’s three alternating singer-guitarists—Tom Russo, Fran Keaney, and Joe White—load their songs with fragmented narratives, overlapping dialogue, and impressionistic detail. Although the literal meaning of their lyrics isn’t always easy to discern, the internal dramas that play out in each track are deeply felt, and the jokes always land. RBCF may careen like a runaway locomotive, but they’ve decked out each car with its own distinct decor and unique cast of characters.

The band sustains that brisk momentum throughout its full-length debut, Hope Downs—although, at 10 songs and 35 minutes, the album is only slightly longer than the EPs that preceded it. Rolling Blackouts are still harnessing their strengths as erudite tunesmiths and freewheeling rock’n’rollers, and the past few years of steady touring have transformed them into a crack live act. Hope Downs feeds off that onstage intensity: “An Air Conditioned Man” kicks off the record like a car chase joined already in progress, with Russo and White’s chiming guitar lines slowly unraveling into dueling solos, while drummer Marcel Tussie trips up the steady backbeat with destabilizing fills. As the song hits a fever pitch, Keaney’s lovelorn ruminations give way to a detached, spoken-word denouement, with Russo emerging like a voice inside Keaney’s head to amplify his torment. “You walk past the wall you first kissed her against/How could you forget,” Russo intones. “Did it ever matter in the first place?” His languorous drawl has a sedative effect on the song, which—like the pent-up desire it chronicles—flames out into a smoky apparition of its former self.

Rolling Blackouts songs have always been fueled by a jittery energy; though Keaney is billed as the band’s acoustic guitarist, he’s more like a second percussionist, his ceaseless strums propelling the songs with bongo-like fury. As “An Air Conditioned Man” vividly illustrates, however, Hope Downs radiates panicked agitation more than manic exuberance. Sure, the band continues to function as an ’80s college-rock fantasy camp: “Talking Straight” packs in all the post-punk propulsion, needling jangle, and crestfallen harmonies of an I.R.S.-era R.E.M. classic, while “Bellarine” practically begs you to sing the Go-Betweens’ “Was There Anything I Could Do?” over its opening riff. But RBCF are hardly operating in a blissful record-collector bubble. On “Mainland,” they put their own privilege under the microscope, with Russo recounting a recent trip to his ancestors’ homeland near Sicily, where bathers enjoyed postcard-perfect waters not far from where refugees were swimming for their lives. The beautifully downcast “Cappuccino City” paints an immersive yet damning portrait of café culture, singing of “FM on the stereo/Belgians in the Congo” as he subtly threads the needle between simple Western pleasures and colonialist violence.

Thirty years ago, RBCF’s brand of alternative rock would have made them ripe for crossover fame. But these days, their “120 Minutes”-era sound has been pushed to the margins—and not just of the pop charts. Even within the realm of contemporary indie, the band is a glorious anomaly. Sophisticated and subversive in equal measure, their staccato sing-alongs come on pristine and precise, then unspool in surprising directions as decorum gives way to abandon. Rolling Blackouts may occupy an empty playground on the modern rock landscape, but that gives them the freedom to run wild in that wide open space, inventing their own games and making up the rules as they go.

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