With their much-anticipated sophomore release The Only Place, indie surf/pop/rock outfit Best Coast (a.k.a. Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno) have brushed the sand off their reel-to-reel and stepped up to the mic for a much cleaner sound than their first record, Crazy for You.
At least, that’s sort of what it sounds like.
Perhaps I should explain. The duo brought in producer Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Kanye West) for this record, who did away with the guitar buzz and AM radio lo-fi vibe in short order, leaving us with a crisper, cleaner version of the band. Sound-wise, this record is miles ahead of the last one, and the 60’s California beach-rock sound that first drew us to Best Coast is coming in clearer than ever, especially with a set of headphones.
As to the songs themselves, the opening song (which happens to be the title track, and also happens to be the first single) is the happiest on the album—really, a love song to California. “Why would you live anywhere else?” sings Cosentino in her signature Neko Case-esque vocal style.
But that’s where the happy songs end. From there, Cosentino plunges into an album-long, angst-ridden lament over everything wrong in her life. Lyrics like “Walk around in a haze / Seems to be how I spend my days” and “I believe in nothing” are commonplace. Thematically, it kind of negates the opener. (Um, if life is so bad, why exactly do I want to live in California?) Ironically, though, the surfer-rock sound underlying all this angst is like the sugar that makes the medicine go down. I can’t help but smile as I bop to the music while I listen to how her life sucks. And for that matter, the angsty lyrics aren’t a bad thing; they’re honest and straightforward. The songs are really good; they’re just a bit dark, that’s all.
Some people have come out complaining that The Only Place doesn’t really hit the mark for them the way Crazy For You did, but I don’t agree. I think some of the complaining actually comes from a different place. Indie bands are supposed to be a bit counter-cultural, and there are some people who are sore at Bethany Cosentino for recently calling Best Coast a “brand” and for having a clothing line at Urban Outfitters. But I just figure that Cosentino doesn’t have those indie-rock hangups, and doesn’t see it as a sell-out. I, for one, don’t see the problem.
However, I do have one complaint about the record, and it has nothing to do with the Urban Outfitters clothing line, or the record being too melancholy. My complaint is a lot simpler: Best Coast needs to learn to play in a few more keys. The first five songs are all in the key of G, and sort of sound like different parts of the same song. Then after a brief change in song 6, songs 7 and 8 are right back to G. Not till the end of the track list do we start to hear any diversity. It’s a minor complaint (pun intended), but I just wish they’d change it up a little more.
Otherwise, I have to tell you that I love the cleaned-up sound of Best Coast on The Only Place. It’s not a perfect record, but it definitely takes this band in the right direction.
ALBUM RATING: Four Stars (out of five)