Who is Bethany Cosentino? The answer, as is the case with most 20-something artists, is evolving. Whether it’s for the better depends on how far you continue reading.
Bassist Bobb Bruno said people’s most common misperception of his band’s vocalist is that of a chill cat-lady-in-training; in reality, she’ll tear you down before you can say “Snacks.” Despite a lively Twitter account, there’s little of that snapshot snark on Best Coast’s sophomore effort, The Only Place, to change that notion.
Still, that The Only Place’s album art replaces Cosentino’s famous feline with a black bear is appropriate: she’s more confident with her voice than ever, reaching for the sky without oversinging. The closing la da da’s on “Last Year” sound like nobody as much as Stevie Nicks, and her newfound vocal chops make the music sound like vintage country filtered through Clueless-era radio rock. Songs like the minimalist waltz “No One Like You” show she’s finding her voice the way Dum Dum Girls’ Dee-Dee did on last year’s Only In Dreams.
This confidence is oddly absent from the lyrics, which would expectedly be more assured than the transitional period diaries of Crazy For You. The neediness in the songs contradicts her tuff-grrl persona (“I’m always crying on the phone / Because I know that I will end up alone”) and while contradiction and uncertainty is part of the human condition, her begging is undermined by god-awful lyrical choices (“Can I still be the queen to your king?” shows a special brand of adolescent desperation).
Jon Brion’s production is characteristically clear as teardrops, underscoring the pop cred of recording a Best Coast album at the historic Capitol Studios where Green Day laid down American Idiot. He doesn’t add much – subtle strings here, dreamlike vibraphone there – but when he steps in, he makes for a welcome third member. Side 2 surprise “Dreaming My Life Away” is a mix of insidious bossanova and decayed lounge music, its minor key hook suggesting the brooding tone of EPs like Where the Boys Are. That record’s monkeyhouse cacophony – a blend of brutal guitar scrape and damaged girl-group pop – finds its polar opposite in The Only Place, an album about moving forward when everyone’s holding you back.
“I used to believe in you and me / But now I believe in nothing,” she sings on “Last Year,” and it’s more a status update than a lament. Cosentino seems more sullen now, likely due to two years of near-constant touring and publicity. She’s developed a penchant for singing about her money, with lines like “One day it will be gone / and then I’ll have to write another song” (add a #problems hashtag as you will). Believe it or not, those are the highlights.
There’s no way around it: the lyrics are lazy (if not crazy). “Sun” rhymes with “fun,” “phone” with “alone.” She’s never been a poet, but the songs on her debut, Crazy For You were so utterly catchy it didn’t make a damn bit of difference as the apologists ditched the debate for the beach. By contrast, most of The Only Place sound listless, wafting by but never taking hold. Revisit Crazy For You’s thumping “Goodbye,” and it sounds like Nirvana.
“Better Girl” is one of the album’s rare keepers, a near-perfect pop song that does in 3 minutes what the entire album struggles with. “You’ve got to keep me away from what they say about me,” sings the girl defending her business partners to every Mindy McIndie with a Tumblr account. The sparkling title track, an initially disappointing single, also stands as a frontrunner for the album’s best song (however faint that praise might be). It’s one hell of a tourism spot for California (are you listening, Chicago bands?), and the tone is set for The Only Place as an indie-pop triumph, until “Why I Cry” comes along with the exact same chord progression.
The Only Place won’t win new fans, and it’ll definitely put off some old ones (for better or worse, prepare for a jarring segue into the Something In The Way EP on your playlist). Not that Cosentino cares: she’ll turn nothing-to-lose individualism – “I don’t want to be how they want me to be” – into a stirring chorus. With an Urban Outfitters clothing line, conflicting stories regarding the dismissal of a band member, and a scrubbed new sound, all stars are lining up for a full-on backlash. Haters gonna hate, but 2012 shouldn’t see a Best Coast Backlash as much as a collective shrug.
Best Coast – The Only Place tracklist:
- “The Only Place”
- “Why I Cry”
- “Last Year”
- “My Life”
- “No One Like You”
- “How They Want Me to Be”
- “Better Girl”
- “Do You Love Me Like You Used To”
- “Dreaming My Life Away”
- “Let’s Go Home”
- “Up All Night”