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Music Review: Best Coast – The Only Place

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Bethany Cosentino (one half of the California surf pop duo Best Coast) has steadily increased her public profile in recent years. Besides gracing the cover of the most recent issue of SPIN (along with a Nathan Williams of the rock group Wavves, who doubles as her boyfriend), Cosentino’s throwback ’60s girl group sound, mixed with dreamy, soothing harmonies and the music to match it, has earned her group a number of high profile festival appearances (Coachella, SXSW) and fans. They include her idol Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley, Postal Service) and star actress Drew Barrymore, who directed the video to one of Best Coast’s top tunes, “Our Deal” (from debut 2010 album Crazy for You).

For second album The Only Place (out now on Mexican Summer), Cosentino and mult-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno (guitar, bass, drums), enlisted veteran Jon Brion to produce the record. The results see the overall sound more natural-sounding and polished, with less reliance on reverb-soaked vocals and distorted guitars, and more focus on getting the most out of the group’s lush guitar-based melodies and of course, Cosentino’s gorgeous vocals. Gone too is the lo-fi production that was endearing for some of Crazy for You.

Still, the sunny Cali pop hooks fans loved on Best Coast’s first album—and on other EPs featuring standout songs such as “Sunny Adventure”—are present all over the new record. That includes the title track, which happens to be the album’s first cut and single. The bright, arpeggiated chords Bruno plays on his guitar once the band comes in immediately draws you in and lets your ears know they’re in for more of ear candy you’ve come to know and love from this group. The rest of the song is full of power pop chords courtesy of Cosentino and lyrics that act as a tourism ad for her popular home state: “We’ve got the ocean/Got the babes/Got the sun/We’ve got the waves.” In other words, it’s a promising start.

Next track “Why I Cry” keeps the energy up but suffers from originality, as it sounds too similar to the title track for much of its duration—about 2:20. Elsewhere, “Let’s Go Home” comes out swinging with its easy, breezy post-punk energy, only to be harmed by a rather weak bridge section.

“Last Year” has a slow but sexy 6/8 (doo wop-like) beat to it, with the steady guitars and sunnier vocal melodies contrasting with lyrics about kicking bad habits and losing one’s mind. Mid-album highlight “How They Want Me to Be” has a summery feel and lovely reverb-aided vocals—the latter of which is a rarity now. And “Up All Night” closes the disc on a high note, with a yearning voice trying to deal with being alone, sung over timeless ’50s and ’60s girl group-sounding melodies.

Much has been said about Cosentino’s lyrics over the course of two albums now. Sure they tend to be too simplistic at times and can be repetitive. The title track, for instance, reminds you in more than one rhyming scheme that she always has “fun.” But such complaints are misguided and irrelevant, as one doesn’t listen to an ode to California for in depth lyricism. Besides, were there many people dissecting the lyrical wisdom of all the great rhythm and blues, Motown and doo wop groups of yesteryear? I don’t think so. As long as artists make great music that moves people or makes them happy, and do so with some passion behind it, that’s all that really matters.

The more legit issue Cosentino should address is her lack of diversity in the keys she writes her songs in—the first five songs all start out in G major, and over the course of two albums, it seems 90% of her tunes are in that key or in C major. Even if the songs veer off into different keys as they are played, that kind of approach can make an album and even a show suffer from sameness. Luckily, Cosentino has the talent and a production team to prevent this from being a significant problem, at least for now.

In all, The Only Place may not have as many sing-alongs as debut Crazy for You, but the majority of it—at least 70% of the 11 tracks—is enjoyable, and therefore it avoids the dreaded sophomore slump.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.