Highly anticipated follow up continues with musical complexity, falls short lyrically
Just in time for summer, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have released the follow-up LP to their critically acclaimed debut, Hope Downs. Their sophomore record, Sideways to New Italy, builds upon the foundation laid by the band in their previous work to create another optimistic, feel-good, sunny musical landscape.
After a rigorous eighteen-month tour for Hope Downs, the Australian five-piece, comprised of singers/songwriters and guitarists Tom Russo, Joe White and Fran Keaney, with bassist Joe Russo and drummer Marcel Tussie rounding out the lineup, returned to Melbourne victorious but displaced. It’s this disconnect from reality caused by touring which inspires the music of Sideways to New Italy.
With three guitarists, the band engages in musical calisthenics unlike any other. Track after track delivers intense and complex interweaving guitar parts that complement and play off each other with obvious expertise. In having three different songwriters, the tracks should probably feel disconnected but they aren’t. They’re cohesive, not only due to their general aesthetic, but thanks to the multifaceted guitar parts that are the band’s signature strength.
That’s not to say the guitarists are the only band members worthy of praise. Joe Russo’s bass expertly kicks off “The Only One.” In fact, the bassline may be the most memorable part of the song. Plus, Tussie’s percussion is consistently driving the record forward, pushing and pulling the tempo from track to track. It’s particularly impressive in the musically complex lead single, “Cars in Space.”
As musically talented as Rolling Blackouts C. F. are, Sideways to New Italy fails to live up to the precedent of their previous material. It’s by no means a sophomore slump, but the growth between this era and the last is not as great as it needs to be in order for the band to continue their upward momentum.
From the opener, “The Second of the First,” it’s excruciatingly obvious the band knows how to write music. Completely guitar-driven, and never claiming not to be, Rolling Blackouts C. F. pushes the instrumentation to the forefront and leaves the vocals to fall in line behind the guitar parts. It’s impressive to listen to the guitar lines crisscross and complement each other. It’s not quite as impressive by the ninth track where nearly nothing has changed.
For the most part, the songs are well-written in terms of structure. The hooks may not be as sharp as older Rolling Blackouts C. F. and some choruses get lost with the musical acrobats going on, but on the whole, the album is pretty solid when it’s stripped down to its bare bones. This proves the band has the ability and tools necessary to craft a mammoth record, yet Sideways to New Italy comes up short.
If anything, the album falls victim to a lack of direction. With no narrative to ground them, the lyrics are vague and sometimes even cringey. In “The Only One,” they demonstrate lazy rhyming with lyrics like, “I found a jewel underneath the swimming pool.” It’s less noticeable in up tempo songs where the guitar parts really take the lead but in acoustic ballads like “Sunglasses at the Wedding,” the lyricism is simply not strong enough for the vocals to be as prominent as they are.
Thematically, the record oozes potential. Honing in on the band members’ feelings of alienation and detachment after returning home from tour, there were so many interesting different and specific directions the band could have taken these ideas. For example, in “She’s There,” they sing, “I live on the outside of everything.” Had they taken this interesting, original idea and took it slightly further, perhaps the lyrical content of the record wouldn’t be so mind-numbingly generic. Even in “Beautiful Steven,” where they lament about a friend’s final moments, singing, “I wanna stand on the edge again/ I wanna step off,” there’s room to unpack and expand the lyricism.
Unsurprisingly, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s second LP, Sideways to New Italy, is musically complex and fun to listen to. Surf rock perfect for summertime, every song falls into a tight musical landscape that paints a picture of sunshine and nostalgia. While it may not contain lyrical content as evolved as would be expected of a band this talented, the release still feels like a small step forward for the band. It’s just not the leap it was predicted to be.