Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Best Coast's Bethany Cosentino aims for big change on new LP

For many of us, the summer of 2010 was curiously colored by a small town California girl named Bethany Cosentino. That was when her debut, Crazy for You, was released, a fun little record mish-mashing fuzzy surf rock with retro melodies and jangly pop hooks. It was a perfect summertime record with a refreshing lo-fi grimy sound.

Cosentino became an overnight guru on heartache, felines, and good ole Mary J. Despite that, though, it was hard to get over the feeling that the music was made by someone whose hair was perpetually unwashed.

All this set the stage for the release of the band's sophomore set, The Only Place. This record introduces marked changes for the band. Overall, it's a mixed bag. Cosentino certainly still maintains a penchant for writing simple pop songs that are short, catchy, and to the point. Barely a track breaches the thee minute mark. What's changed? Evidently Cosentino snatched a bottle of conditioner and trimmed those bangs, because The Only Place sounds much sleeker, cleaner, and sexier.

John Brion's production has enhanced several key elements. The most notable beneficiary is Cosentino's voice. It is much richer, cleaner, and syrupy sounding, which in turn allows her personality to shine through even more clearly and radiantly. She's come a long way from the days of early singles like "Sun Was High (So Was I)," which was such a muddled mess that it wasn't easy to pick out her vocals from the background instrumentation. Now, tracks like "Last Year" feature a beautiful aria from Bethany at the end. The closer, "Up All Night," may be the best track in this collection. Her tale of lost love and heartbreak tugs at your heart strings like no other song in her catalog.

The vocal performance on her more obviously retro themed pieces aren't too shabby either.

"No One Like You" is a 50s style soul ballad that wouldn't sound out of place on a Four Seasons record. The song sees Cosentino expressing her devotion for her sweetheart like a lost lovesick puppy. "How They Want Me to Be," another highlight, features 60s girlpop vocals and a theme that focuses on becoming more sure of yourself. 

Other noteworthy tracks include the title track and album opener, which kicks off with a chord progression that sounds like something straight out of Juno, before launching into an unabashed ode about the joys of The Golden State. Lines like "we were born with sun in our teeth and in our hair" sound like a treatise on everything it means to be part of the under 25 crowd on the California coast.

Lyric wise, the album largely focuses on a downer motif. There are plenty of themes about being broke, heartbroken, and dealing with the pressure of trying to conform to the expectations of others. All concepts that young people can surely relate to. 

Sadly, there are more than a few problems on this record I can't overlook. For one, there simply isn't much variety. This album stands in marked contrast to the sound presented on Crazy for You, but most of the tracks on The Only Place don't truly sound all that different from one another. Take the first two songs, "The Only Place" and "Why I Cry," for example, where even the basic melodies of each song are startlingly similar.

Every song is short, simple and catchy, but the flip side of that coin is that there's not a ton of depth to any of the songs. The main thrust of each song can easily be gleaned within a listen or two, which means repeated listens will be met with diminishing returns.

This record feels like it was produced for mass consumption. Some may not mind, but personally it reminds me how much I really miss the scuzzy lo-fi charm of Crazy For You and the silly vibe that Bethany brought to that record, as opposed to the dreary mood on The Only Place. Needless to say, we probably won't be hearing many more Wavves comparisons.

I truly want to like Bethany Cosentino. She's an engaging figure with a unique personality, and that shines through vividly in her writing. The improved production gives her voice a chance to shine, but at the cost of ripping out most of the charm they had on Crazy for You. She also hasn't really escaped the repetitive song structure that was one of the few major issues on that album. I can't help but feel like The Only Place takes a few steps forward, but several huge steps back.

Score: 74/100

See also: Best Coast - Crazy for You review

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