Romero’s Alanna Oliver spent her post-collegiate years touring Victoria, Australia, with a Blues Brothers tribute band, covering the likes of Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, doused in more than a little bit of camp. This part of her origin story is a far cry from the scuzzy Melbourne rock scene that her bandmates—Fergus Sinclair, Justin ‘Murry’ Tawil, and brothers Adam and Dave Johnstone—came up in. But that element of virtuosity is also what makes them stand out in a community where attitude is as important as talent.
The sound of Romero’s debut album, Turn It On, feels like a collection of reference points, from the relentless drive of Royal Headache’s power pop to Thin Lizzy’s squealing solos, or even the vintage production effects of the Strokes, had they been born in Dunedin, New Zealand. But their closest analogue is Sheer Mag: Their crunchy guitar tones sound separated at birth, and they’re both referential, throwback rock bands whose charismatic singers occasionally carry them to moments of transcendence. Good taste makes even the most devout reverence more palatable, and Turn It On! plays to their strengths. There’s a satisfying crackle to Adam Johnstone and Fergus Sinclair’s choice in amplifiers, pickups, and pedals, and engineer Andrew ‘Idge’ Hehir places them in a dueling stereo mix, their loud, lo-fi tones battling across the left and right channels.
It’s hard to understate the rejuvenating effect Oliver had on the rest of the band. Drummer Dave Johnstone and guitarist Adam Johnstone had become disillusioned with Melbourne’s scene and were on their way out when they met her. Their old bands, Chillers and Summer Blood, were both jangly garage rock outfits more representative of what you might hear at the Tote, the Melbourne venue at the heart of an independent rock scene that venerates the punk and power pop of the 1970s and ’80s. These were good bands, but they lacked something that was hard to put a finger on—at least until they met Oliver. She wasn’t just removed from the scene—she was relatively unfamiliar with rock music in general.
That outsider POV is what makes Romero sound fresh despite the vintage palette, an injection of earnest enthusiasm and pomp that shoots these songs into the stratosphere. Oliver’s subject matter is largely drawn from people in her life, like the non-committal ex-boyfriend in “Halfway Out the Door” or her cool auntie in “Neapolitan.” Other lyrics offer a glimpse into how she approaches her performance. “Turn It On” is inspired by a remark about Blondie’s Debbie Harry from a documentary—“She just gets on stage and she turns it on”—and while their voices couldn’t be more different, the effect they have on their bands is similar. Oliver can ooze heartache and attitude with equal aplomb, following a soaring vocal run on “Halfway Out the Door” with a cocky strut on the title track. “Turn It On!” is Romero at its most fun—dialing up the camp and cowbell, leaning into “hoo-hoo” harmonies that fall somewhere between a smile and a sneer.