Rating: 3.5/5Until very recently, I had no idea that there was a strong, vocal contingent of people who absolutely despise Bethany Cosentino and her band Best Coast. Certainly I knew that the band must have its detractors. Every musical artist does, especially if they’re the beneficiaries of buzzy success as Best Coast was with their 2010 debut Crazy For You, led by the infectious, irresistible (or so I thought) single “Boyfriend.” And there have even been times in the past couple years when it seemed like Cosentino was practically courting animosity. The current state of the recording industry is dire enough that most fans understand that commercial crossovers are simply part of how performers build a fiscally viable career, but indulging something as crassly uncool as “designing” a clothing line for Urban Outfitters makes it seem like she’s angling to be the indie rock Britney.
It’s still been surprising to me at the level of venom deployed in several of the articles leading up to the release of their sophomore effort The Only Place. Everyone from L.A. Weekly to The A.V. Club has made a point of gleefully cataloging the most bruising assessments of Cosentino and Best Coast, including one writer who purported to measure Cosentino’s brain power against that of Sarah Palin, unkindly declaring the hockey mama grizzly (or whatever the hell she’s calling herself these days) the victor. It’s pretty early in the band’s life cycle for the hype machine to have turned this sour.
Knowing all this adds an interesting subtext to the songs on The Only Place. “Why I Cry” can easily be read as just another tale of dashed romance, a topic Cosentino is accused of writing about with damning frequency, which is a charge that can be leveled at about half the songwriters who drew paychecks banging out songs now recognized as classics. The song can also be heard as a petulant retaliation against her critics: “‘Yeah, you seem to think you know everything/ You don’t know why I cry.” Similarly, “How They Want Me to Be,” pairs lyrics about brave individuality in the face of brutal judgment with a summer sunset melody right out of the Brian Wilson playbook. “All of my friends stick up their noses/ They ask me where my money is and where does it go once I’ve spent it,” Cosentino sings. Eventually the song reaches its conclusion with her taking solace in a lover who also doesn’t want her to change to suit the others, itself a layered retort to those who gripe that she spends too much time gushing about her desire for love.
The album is instantly recognizable as a Best Coast effort, awash in surf rock rhythms and propped up by punchy hooks. Multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno grounds the songs with clean, crisp backing and Cosentino’s vocals float softly above it all. The band worked with producer Jon Brion, who characteristically coaxes an understated lushness onto the tracks. It’s still fuzzy, echoing and lo-fi, but it’s also got a fine sheen that’s surprisingly immaculate. There are even times when the band is clearly racing to free themselves of the ruts they could easily get into. “Better Girl” and “Let’s Go Home” have just enough of an earthy quality that they almost sound like the sort of songs Neko Case comes up with when she’s just trying to conjure a little lark for whatever hootenanny she might stumble upon.
Maybe I should be more jaded when I listen to The Only Place, taking grave offense at the directness, even the simplicity of the lyrics, but I don’t actually think that everyone needs to aspire to the arch poetry of Leonard Cohen or the battered barrio operettas of Tom Waits. Sometimes the gratifying immediacy of the best pop songs comes from the creator laying it all out there in the plainest way they can. That Best Coast can do it and generate a sort of melancholy beauty strikes me as worthy of appreciation rather than derision.