Release Date: May 5, 2015
Record label: Harvest
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock
Expectation is a finicky, often insurmountable burden attached to nearly every album in the Internet age. It’s impossible to avoid the entirety of a band’s hype, their narrative played out for millions of Twitter followers and casual bystanders alike who tend to take on a touchy familiarity with musicians, a twist that taints the experience of hearing an album for the first time. Underrated “diminishing” returns by bands like Sleigh Bells and TV on the Radio managed to outlast their initial shrug, proving that yes, Virginia, great bands keep pushing out good product when the noise dies down.
LA duo Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno might sound like the perfect distillation of the Californian dream – lo-fi surf guitars and 60s girl-group vocals complementing increasingly overt references to the Golden State – yet what sets them apart is the undercurrent of melancholia in Cosentino’s lyrics. Their third album is another impressive set, heartbreak ballads (Fading Fast, Wasted Time) sitting comfortably alongside more strident fare, the thrashy Heaven Sent catching Cosentino in lovestruck mode. If there’s a criticism it’s that their is a sound that works best in short bursts, something that becomes all too evident as the expendable title track enters its sixth minute.
Sometimes a band needs to go big or go home. On California Nights, Best Coast go bigger than big and it proves to be exactly the right move. On their previous album, 2013's The Only Place, they made a baby step toward becoming a stadium indie band, but it ended up being more of a misstep. Working with Jon Brion, the duo of Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno cut down on the guitar noise, added some sophistication, and ended up with a tepid album.
Ever since the sun-drenched guitars of their debut ‘Crazy For You’, Best Coast have continued to make a name for themselves as the Californian queen and king of lo-fi surf-pop. Needless to say, their newest record isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel, but those familiar scuzzy guitars feel just as satisfying as ever. While their previous effort, ‘The Only Place’ admittedly saw them veering closer to the more country-tinged aspects of their influences, their third full-length – the follow-up to their self-released mini-album ‘Fade Away’ – sees the duo make a return to the more driven sound of their debut.
It’s not unreasonable to label this third Best Coast record as make-or-break for the band. With some superb, blissed-out early singles and her brilliantly scuzzy surf-pop debut, Crazy for You, Bethany Cosentino earned herself plenty of goodwill, most of which she would go on to squander in 2012 with an ill-judged second LP, The Only Place. Almost everything about that album was jarring; the huge leap from the rough-and-ready textures of its predecessor to pristine production so polished you could see your face in it, the move from pop-punk tempos to turgid, overwrought balladry, and the fact that her blindingly simplistic lyrics were suddenly infinitely less charming when not buried under layer after layer of reverb.
For purists holding their noses with one hand, Best Coast will never be “lo-fi” enough; to them, the heart-on-sleeve realness of the band’s debut, Crazy for You, was a wrought-together masterpiece of everything they wanted Best Coast to be, ad infinitum: a weed-friendly Spectorian mélange of The Beach Boys and the earnestness of Lena Dunham. But Best Coast hasn’t been that band since 2012’s The Only Place (a slickened attempt at alt-country). On California Nights—the band’s third full-length album and major label debut—they’re a more arena-friendly, quasi-Paramore act that blends pop-punk with declarations of vulnerability.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. If Best Coast were a political party their snappy campaign slogan would probably read something like: "Cats! Cannabis! California!" That is to say, they have well-established themes and they've been sticking to them like flies imbibed in David Cameron's face-shining ointment. It was easy to fall in love with Best Coast's first album Crazy for You.
There is perhaps no single genre label that can become so confining as the “lo-fi” tag. Los Angeles duo Best Coast know first-hand the frustrations of dealing with that misleading pest. The group quickly worked at ridding themselves of it ever since their debut record, Crazy For You, earned the band significant buzz and a rabid following in the year 2010.
Calling out Bethany Cosentino, a 20-something, vaguely famous woman, for chronicling the trials and tribulations of 20-something, vaguely famous women has become something of a sport for critics. While some still believe Cosentino is as an artist capable of a sonic and lyrical breakthrough, there were many (vaguely sexist) calls for the singer to just grow up.California Nights isn't going to change that dynamic. It flaunts the qualities that made Best Coast indie darlings in the first place while continuing down the thematic road that feeds Cosentino's detractors.
Five years on from ‘Crazy For You’, their weed- and reverb-drenched surf-punk opus, Best Coast have come of age. The dreamy, sun-streaked yearning remains, but the humour that laced Bethany Cosentino’s bratty ennui has gone. ‘California Nights’ is, instead, full of more sobering concerns – medication, heartbreak, insomnia. Gone too is the plucky, country-dappled sound the duo (completed by guitarist Bobb Bruno) trialled on middling 2012 album ‘The Only Place’.
California, like the country to which it belongs, is as much a story as it is a physical place. The sunshine, the silver screen, the sleek bodies in the surf — all these are a part of this story, or at least of its latest incarnation. Earlier chapters may differ in their particulars, but they’re all built on the assumption that California is somehow apart from the rest of the world, somehow governed by a different set of rules.
As Voltaire said, if a Best Coast album named California Nights didn’t exist, it would be necessary to create one. This is the band’s third LP, following the Fade Away mini-album that aborted the attempt at repositioning Bethany Cosentino as a stripped-down singer-songwriter, as on 2012's The Only Place. Instead, California Nights layers the fuzz back on top of her distinct voice for a radio-friendly take on '90s alt-rock—an attempt to stay part of the establishment as natural questions arise over the diminishing returns of the band’s core formula.
"What is life?" asks Bethany Cosentino on "So Unaware." For real, girl? Existential inquiry is an unexpected avenue for a songwriter who made her name with 2009's "Sun Was High (So Was I)" and other beachy anthems about battling romantic blues with garage-pop melodies and bubblegum kush. On her band's third album, it seems that coping mechanism isn't working so well anymore. Her solution? Double down on hooks, harmonies and wall-of-sound effects; own your darkness; power through.
Best Coast began life as a fun-loving, if stoned and frequently bummed-to-the-max commercial for their native California. The title track on their 2012 album The Only Place more or less made it their mission statement; “We’ve got the ocean, got the babes,” sings Bethany Cosentino, “Got the sun, we’ve got the waves.” As charmingly fuzzy and kitschy as those early paeans to coastal smoke-outs and heartbreak were, there were limits to those charms. Eventually, Cosentino and bandmate Bobb Bruno would have to leave that beachside bungalow and explore some new climes to grow as a band.
Bethany and Bobb’s third record is like a needy, narcissistic LA teen in an ironic Avril Lavigne T-shirt who loiters round the house, nagging and nudging you until you’ve no option but to be endeared by its gawkish vulnerability. It begins with the heavily medicated Feeling OK, falls hook, line and sinker on the Hole-homage Heaven Sent, asks “Why don’t you like me?” during Jealousy, before addressing more pertinent questions, “What is life? What is love? What’s the meaning of it all?” on So Unaware. Some of this is perhaps expressed quite knowingly, but since the fuzz has been stripped from the lo-fi crackle of their former records, Best Coast’s lyrics have never held such clout.
Consider for a moment what I call the Best Coast follow-up albums quandary: the California (in case you weren’t aware) duo’s debut, Crazy for You, was great both because of and in spite of its almost-childlike simplicity, both musically and lyrically. The emotional directness, the endearing fuzziness of the production and, above all, the charm of singer-guitarist Bethany Cosentino made for an unexpectedly irresistible pop alchemy. But here’s the rub: this isn’t the kind of thing that holds up over the long run.
Ah yes, Best Coast. Led by the charming Bethany Cosentino (her Twitter account is worth a follow if you’re into eavesdropping on friendly exchanges with Hayley from Paramore) and ably assisted on guitar by the much quieter Bobb Bruno, you might remember their 2010 emergence, spearheaded by their carefree, California dreamin’ debut Crazy for You. A joyfully simplistic (and brief) work of lo-fi that oozed insouciance, it surfed through that late summer haze with an array of blissed-out, three-chord ditties that featured the kind of catchy yet largely-meaningless lyrics that, for some ungodly reason, stick around long in the memory: “I lost my job, I miss my mom / I wish my cat could talk” (‘Goodbye’) being a rather fitting example.
Of all the cultural archetypes that Southern California has produced, the loosely defined genre known as "beach music" is one of its most enduring. That sunny, harmony-rich, melodically spirited permutation is the rope connecting artists as varied as the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, the Go-Gos, Snoop Dogg, Mazzy Star and No Doubt. Over the last few years that sound has ridden a wave into the present through the work of Best Coast.
If reviewers talk about pretty much the same thing in every Best Coast review, it’s because Best Coast does pretty much the same thing on every album. Despite a few variations in delivery—country-influenced here, hazy dream pop there—what remains constant are the band’s soaring, summery melodies and catchy choruses. That’s what people like about Best Coast, and what makes the band, if not critic-proof, at least critic-resistant.
An adorable calico cat enjoys the sunset shade of a palm tree. A non-threatening brown bear hugs the state of California. A pair of cooler-than-thou musicians reflect in a shimmering swimming pool. One of these things is not like the others. Best Coast forsake the cutesy cartoons that adorned the ….
Best Coast have made a surprisingly long career out of an unchanging musical formula: simple beach pop about trying to find love, being in it happily and unhappily, holding onto it. Other topics: jealousy, cats, boredom, getting high, insomnia. On third album and major label debut California Nights, singer/lyricist/guitarist Bethany Cosentino sings, "I stay high all the time / just to get by," hinting equally at her unhappiness and lack of desire to deal with it.