Cool Sounds – ‘Bystander’ review: Melbourne six-piece ponder the world’s problems on their best album yet

The indie pop band channel the barroom Americana of Silver Jews as Dainis Lacey ruminates on everything from right-wing extremism to his own white privilege

Cool Sounds rarely do the same thing twice. With Dainis Lacey being the only constant member, this is to be expected: a revolving cast of characters is always going to push your project in many different directions. Springing onto the scene with 2016 debut ‘Dance Moves’ – a collection of dreamy, gauzy indie pop that had a loose Roxy Music vibe to it – Cool Sounds seemed like yet another ennui-obsessed guitar band in the making. But with 2018’s ‘Cactus Country’, the band veered in a different direction, having a go at lo-fi indie rock through a rugged country filter and hinting to the world that they were more than the sum of their parts. Now, with the arrival of ‘Bystander’, they’re delivering on that promise.

‘Bystander’ is released by Spunk Records and Osborne Again, the latter being a record label that has in its way set the agenda for Australia’s indie pop scene: Pop Filter, Emma Russack and Snowy Band are all labelmates, and it’s within this community of like-minded bands that Cool Sounds find their spiritual home. While the majority of artists in this community turn their heads toward melancholic, chilled-out pop, ‘Bystander’ saddles up with an effortless Nashville cool that’s full of whammy-country guitar and Randy Newman-esque melodies.

The first thing that strikes you about ‘Bystander’ is just how nice it sounds. Opener ‘Plains’ starts with amp crackle and a distant guitar line that’s familiar from Cool Sounds’ past playbook, but all of a sudden it snaps back to life, like a black-and-white film being restored in full colour. ‘Bystander’ is lush and warm, with Lacey’s spruiky vocals sounding the best they ever have at the front of the mix. In the last third of ‘Plains’, a flurry of keys and trumpets carries the song into a dreamlike state that leaves you wondering: is this really the same band that made ‘Dance Moves’?

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Lacey’s observations are as timeless and sharp as the music that shapes them. “Where’s the time gone? / And where’s my life gone? / When’s this winter going to end?,” he croons on ‘Back To Me’, a standout song off the strength of its plush guitar work and charming harmonies. It’s a reflection on grief, loss and growth that never feels like a caricature of anything, as much as Lacey’s vocals can sometimes insinuate it. ‘Back To Me’ is proof that Cool Sounds can stay true to their kitschy roots while continually pushing the limits of their sound.

Hey bystander / Don’t just stand there / All you do is normalise that fear / Raise your voice and make yourself clear,” Lacey pleads on the title track, which is also the album’s most country-leaning song, all twang and barnyard bounce. It’s interesting how the song you’re least likely to take seriously on the album is the one that actually gets to the record’s core message: don’t be complacent and take action.

For a record so joyous and melodic – the saccharine sweetness of The Velvet Underground’s ‘Loaded’ comes to mind – you’d be forgiven for missing the fact that Lacey is urging you to reflect on your life and pay close attention to what’s happening around you. “Now I’m playing Jenga in a craft beer bar / Having an existential crisis / ’Cause my backstory’s a work of art,” he quips, before musing: “I’m thinking to myself / How am I using all this privilege?

That’s the guiding question of the record, which Lacey ponders through a mixture of deadpan humour and journal-like reflections. On ‘Church Bells’, he skewers the notion of reverse racism (“Italian man yells at Italian man / He’s of Turkish descent,”) while on ‘Human Statue’, he mocks the insidious, right-wing extremism that seems, worryingly, ever more prevalent (“It was his gateway to Joe Rogan / Jump on 4chan, incel forum”).

Each observation is delivered with the intimacy of a barroom tale as if told by the late David Berman, or occasionally the stoic scrawl of Sam Elliott’s The Stranger in The Big Lebowski. While the warm-weather hooks are definitely enough to justify repeated listens, it’s really Lacey’s well-considered and pointed lyricism – all of which were written before the music, in a notebook while kicking around France and Italy – that makes the record rewarding over time.

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On the surface, ‘Bystander’ is an incredibly polished indie pop record that puts a unique Australiana spin on a classic Americana sound. It’s Cool Sounds’ best-sounding album yet, and deserves a last-minute spot on your summer playlist as we see the season out. But it’s really Lacey’s astute observations of both his inner mind and our world-at-large that make it worth coming back to again and again. If nothing else, there’s no other band out there entwining indie pop and alt-country in the way that Cool Sounds are right now.

Details

Cool Sounds album Bystander Melbourne indie pop album review
  • Release date: February 12
  • Record label: Spunk Records/Osborne Again
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