As for so many musicians, 2020 was a time of stasis and uncertainty for Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. The title of their third album, with its suggestion of maze-like entrapment, is the stuff of literal nightmares but also, one imagines, of the psychological effect of the world’s longest lockdown in Australia’s mismanaged pandemic. This record was born out of that time: singer and guitarist Tom Russo, one of three songwriters in the band, has admitted that a lot of his ideas “came from endlessly walking around the same streets of [Melbourne neighbourhood] West Brunswick”. Fran Keaney spent his weekends “building stuff on Garageband, writing without having any sense anybody would listen to it”.
All of which makes the propulsive force and lungs-filling expansiveness of Endless Rooms even more striking. Enforced isolation meant the quintet wrote near complete songs separately and shared the demos around, rather than jamming them into existence together then building them up piece by piece, as they did with 2020’s Sideways To New Italy. Their debut, 2018’s Hope Downs, was characterised by its fusion of melancholic jangle-pop and mid-’80s US college rock. Just two years later, they bent their artful slight awkwardness in Television’s direction without sounding indecently in thrall. Both were unequivocally indie-pop records.
But their latest reveals Rolling Blackouts CF as guitar-rock classicists of the interpretive kind, with The War On Drugs and The Cribs their kindred spirits. Themes of claustrophobia and paranoia surface but rather than fold inward, the band have surged forward, to deliver a dozen songs significantly bigger than before, without a whiff of bombast. Guitar effects deliver extra texture and vigour, while an analogue synth, church organ and glockenspiel provide subtle but significant detail. There’s nothing here to spook the horses – RBCF have shifted ground, rather than adopting a scorched-earth policy, and there are still traces of The Chills, The Go-Betweens and a less psychedelic Church – but the dynamic thrust and dizzying reach are new. Both come naturally to the band.
The set opens with a sweet, one-minute instrumental, played on said synth and a drum machine, with the creaking of a door signalling entry to a particular space – the Basin, a mud-brick, lakeside house in rural Victoria where recording was done in December 2020, with engineer (and co-producer) Matt Duffy. After that intro the album busts right open with “Tidal River”: echoes of Tom Verlaine and The Edge in a chiming, urgent and exultant strings tangle that levels out into a terrific sheeting symphony with harmonised vocals and lyrics that address ecological disaster and Australian complacency. “Jetski over the pale reef/Chase the pill for some relief/As long as you don’t point out what’s underneath your feet”, sings Tom Russo.
Their compatriots’ national pride, sense of entitlement and attitude to refugees is challenged on tearaway single “The Way It Shatters”, where multiple guitar lines apply a golden sheen that belies the lyrical focus (“if you were in the boat, would you turn the other way?”). Most of the songs are romantically, rather than socio-politically inclined, but as Keaney admitted to Uncut, “it’s hard not to let the reality of what is a confusing and frustrating time seep into the songs. We as a group are hopeful people and try to stay away from cynicism but it has been a hard time for optimists. I feel like that lurks in the background of a lot of our songs.”
A balance between euphoria and forlornness is certainly in play on Endless Rooms. In that regard, “Dive Deep”, “Vanishing Dots” and “Bounce Off The Bottom” are instant winners: the former opens with a flurry of treated guitars which then gives way to Joe White’s heady, rippling solo, with a strong supporting rhythm line and an emotional tone that’s a little Forster/McLennan; the second gallops breathlessly out of the traps, its trebly lead reaching for the sky and almost overshooting it. Closer “Bounce Off The Bottom” is all heart and hopefulness wrapped in a chorus that has something of New Order and The Cribs’ “Never Thought I’d Feel Again” but capitulates to neither. Between those sit the hard-driving, love-smitten “Blue Eye Lake” and “Saw You At The Eastern Beach”, a touching vignette of a fading seaside town, soaked in reverb.
Far from a series of intimidatingly empty spaces, Endless Rooms is more like RBCF’s shared mind palace, a place rich with experiences and emotion in which they’re stretching their creative legs, throwing open door after door and rushing eagerly through, to play.