Over the course of two EPs and the excellent Hope Downs album, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have staked out a fair claim to be heirs of the Go-Betweens’ beautifully wounded Australian melancholy. As such, Sideways To New Italy is something of a mild disappointment. It jangles appealingly enough. It’s very listenable. It just lacks a little heft and a sense that this promising band are stepping forward into their golden age. It misses the rawness and brittleness of early material – the desperate, on-edge energy of French Press or the butterflies-in-the-stomach emotional tingle of Fountain of Good Fortune – but hasn’t replaced it with anything weightier, only a neater version of the same. One might almost say it’s treading water.
Single Falling Thunder is a case in point. Leaving aside the painfully untimely video – a summer holiday home vid, shot round the Med, like any of us will be doing that any time soon – it feels breezy and lightweight, like there’s not much behind those artfully jangling indie guitars. “Is it any wonder? / We’re on the outside / Falling like thunder / From the sky”. It’s all so airy, although the frantic riffing on the outro injects some oomph back in.
The pitch for the album is that it’s about searching a sense of place while – you guessed it – touring. New Italy is the village in New South Wales where drummer Marcel Tussie is from, but members of the band have been out to the old Italy too, around the Med, and to festivals across the world, all the while trying to keep a grip on home.
To continue the Go-Betweens comparison, these themes might hint at a 21st century version of that band’s Cattle and Cane, their paean to childhood home. Instead, this is more like the Go-Betweens’ late 80s output, where the angularity had been sheared off to leave straight pop melody in an attempt to find the sales that had eluded them. Much of this feels like it’s drawing from the mainstream of Australian rock, not the alternative. She’s There offers a smidgeon of Midnight Oil. The Cool Change might have fit well on 90s MTV, alongside this. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but earlier work hinted they may have something messier to bring to the table.
The job-share lead vocal duties continue to be a plus point, giving tracks a subtly different flavour while the guitar sounds pin it all together. There are enigmatic, picture-painting lyrics too, although they don’t always leap out from their setting. Beautiful Steven is positively Smithsian in its kitchen sink griminess: “Scuff my blinding shoes / Smoke up in the alley / You disappear again / With Catholic Sally … I once tried to say / In the grey concrete yard / And they looked the other way / As Steven went in hard”. But you don’t pick up a matching vibe from the music.
Cars In Space plays to their strengths, the frantic pace and freewheeling guitars lending tension to lyrics of vague, unspoken turmoil and human disconnection: “You trace your hands / Around the wheel … You want it simple / How hard you make it”. Sunglasses At The Wedding is a reminder of the other strings to their bow too, a gentle, slightly wonky ballad to a love interest à la Franz Ferdinand’s Eleanor Put Your Boots On. The lyrics once again sketch out scenes for us to fill out in our mind’s eye: “You’re caught by the window / A name you can’t remember / You said 4:30, you’re early”.
There’s still lots to like about RBCF. A greater sense of progression would have helped though. This album is Sideways in more than just name.