Surf-pop duo Best Coast matures with new album
Published: Saturday, May 19, 2012
Updated: Sunday, May 20, 2012 20:05
I think of California and I imagine Tupac, beaches and Hollywood—a laid-back life lived in the sun’s rays that shine all year long. Listening to Best Coast, all of these notions about California are confirmed—except for the Tupac connection, I suppose.
The bright, yet laid back, sound of the music makes me feel as though I’m on the beach in the ’60s. If this is any indication of its sound, the band, composed of vocalist and songwriter Bethany Cosentino and her multi-instrumentalist musical partner Bobb Bruno, has a one-line biography on its website: “Inspired by life and love and everything else.” It seems as though the duo lives the relaxed life that their music portrays.
Two years after the band’s first release, 2010’s Crazy for You, Best Coast is back. After months of buzz and an early release of the album’s eponymous first track, the sophomore effort, titled The Only Place, was released on May 15 through the label Mexican Summer for purchase and for streaming through National Public Radio.
I had heard the title track a few weeks ago and figured that it fit with the album art: a big brown bear holding the state of California, a play on that state’s flag. The song is a veritable anthem for Cosentino’s home state. She sings “So leave your cold behind/We’re gonna make it to the beach on time … Why would you live anywhere else?”
The track opens with an upbeat guitar riff that immediately reminded me exactly of the song I’d want to listen to on a drive to the beach. My second thought? Anger and irritation. It’s April in Boston, Bethany. It’s 40 degrees out, and I haven’t put sandals on in months—yes, I suppose California would be the place for me! While I enjoyed the track, the listening experience left me a little bitter, as I wondered whether the entire album was going to be a repetitive rehashing of how wonderful California is, along with a few references made to Cosentino’s cat, Snacks, who made an appearance in the album art of the band’s debut album.
As I continued to listen to the rest of the album, I was pleasantly surprised that nocat references appeared on the album.
The songwriting and production on the second album has taken a turn for a slightly more polished and adult sound, leaving the fuzz behind, and, along with it, the cat references.
Two changes stick out the most: the sound is clearer, and the lyrics are slightly darker. Cosentino forgoes the super angst-ridden lyrics of the first album (for example, “I’d love him to the very end/But instead he is just a friend/I wish he was my boyfriend”) and replaces them with something slightly more serious, like the lyrics from “Last Year”: “But I don’t do that anymore/Kicked my habits out the front door.” The lyrics still have the signature simplicity of Cosentino’s past songwriting but take on more grown-up themes about self-definition and relationship management throughout the album.
If the lyrics are more grown-up, then certainly the recording quality has followed suit. The band had the opportunity to work with well-known studio producer Jon Brion—who has also produced for artists Fiona Apple and Kanye West and for film scores like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Punch-Drunk Love.
The album certainly moves away from the fuzzy, low-fi sound of the previous album and toward a more stylized, in fact, almost too studio-stylized, sound, complete with faux-sounding horns in the first track and strings coming in at the end of the final track, “Up All Night.”
The shift in Best Coast’s sound comes through most clearly on what seems to be the standout track, “My Life.” While it isn’t as upbeat as some of the other tracks, the lilting strumming and Cosentino’s perfect surfer-pop voice keep the song airy and light. Other standout tracks include the heavier “Last Year” and the heavily produced “Do You Love Me Like You Used To.” Listen for a certain, more twangy, country feel, especially on “Dreaming My Life Away,” where this influence seems to be the most prominent—although boring.
Those listening to Best Coast’s new album will find themselves confronted with a question: Did we love Best Coast because it was so low-fi and fuzzy, complete with the cat references? Does this more “grown-up” version of Cosentino’s musical efforts still fit the niche of surfer-beach-rock that it filled before? Maybe, but for a different set of surfers: ones who have stopped getting tattoos and now make their plans in advance.