Graded on a Curve:
Best Coast,
The Only Place

With The Only Place, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino joins up with Fiona Apple/Kanye West producer Jon Brion for the purposes of broadening her sound. But pop polish does her work no favors; the result is a record far inferior to the modest pleasantries of her debut, Crazy for You.

As an unabashed fan of the sound of lo-fi and its contemporary descendant bedroom-pop, I can’t help but be afflicted by a nagging sense of disappointment over its practitioners consistently bailing on the small of scale and the unsmooth of texture, heading instead for the obvious comforts and potential acceptance of bolder sonic normalcy.

Outside of the garage rock realm, where a defiant persistence in unkempt non-streamlining is often considered a virtue, it seems that musicians who chose to explore the glories of four-track fuzz and tape deck hiss are expected sooner rather than later to step into the chilly confines of a spacious studio and “go pro.”

These days of course (with the appropriate software) a person can go pro in the dank confines of their very own expertly decorated basement. And that’s really the point. Lo-fi, no-fi, bedroom-pop, shitgaze etc; none of it sounds that way by accident or due to a lack of resources.

And while some folks thought otherwise, this was also the case back in the dawn of the ‘90s when the term lo-fi really started gaining traction. Pavement, Sebadoh, and Guided by Voices all arrived at their individual if conspiratorial early sounds through savvy calculation. And by 1996 all three had made the necessary adjustments to go pro.

2010’s Crazy for You, the debut long-player from Best Coast was a solid nugget of bedroom-pop. While far from perfect, it soundly delivered on the promise of their assorted early singles and presented Bethany Cosentino as a name to watch. But when it was announced that Best Coast’s follow-up LP was to be produced by Jon Brion, I couldn’t help but feel that familiar twinge of disappointment; here goes another defection out of the bedroom and into the zone of relative refinement.

To be fair, the increase in fidelity between Crazy for You and 2009’s double seven-inch Make You Mine was palpable, but it seemed like Cosentino had found a sweet spot and would hopefully stay there a while. No dice. But just because I suffered that twitch of disappointment over her choice of producer and decision to go large didn’t mean it was a foregone conclusion that I would be disappointed.

For in a non-lo-fi context, I was also a bit bummed way back when after learning that for her third record PJ Harvey had chosen Flood as a producer. If I didn’t think that matchup was a good fit, proof to the contrary was very much in the pudding of To Bring You My Love. Sadly, I can’t say the same for The Only Place. And the fault lies not with Brion, who served his role to the fullest and delivered what’s essentially a mainstream indie-pop record. It’s just not a very good one, and the problem ultimately lies in Cosentino’s songs.

But first let’s backtrack. Crazy for You, if a strong record, was far from a masterpiece. That’s not a putdown. Debut masterworks have a tendency to represent artists that burn bright but brief. The listener gets everything (or close to it) in one big wallop, and then it’s all over but the inevitable letdown. Crazy for You on the other hand felt like a natural starting point, a record that presented the real possibility of growth.

Sure, Cosentino basically sounded like Neko Case if she cared less (much less) for being an alt-country chanteuse and more (much more) for smoking grade A skunk on a canopy bed whist writing songs that referenced a ‘60s pop sound, and all without feeling indebted to any specific predecessor.

But certain tendencies were apparent; for one, the general insubstantiality of her lyrics placed her less as a disciple of B. Wilson and more in the tradition of ‘60s-exponants The Ramones. And the production of Crazy for You was very much a part of its success.

And in the divide between her tunes and the record’s production is where The Only Place’s weakness resides. A songwriting style that was well-served by echo, distance, and touches of fuzz is now shown to be seriously wanting. If Cosentino sounds more like Case than ever, the quality of her writing is nowhere close to that league, and if it seems like I’m damning her as being reliant on a bedroom-pop production gimmick to achieve a moderate level of success, that’s wrong.

For so much pop music is intrinsically tied to production for communicating its essence, from The Beach Boys’ Smile to Michael Jackson’s Thriller to Daniel Johnston’s Yip/Jump Music. And rockists will sneer, but again The Ramones; Craig Leon’s knob-work on that first album is absolutely crucial to why it’s such an important document. A move to the glossier and instead of incendiary “Beat on the Brat” would’ve just sounded silly.

Yes, the previous paragraph is concerned with brilliant records and Crazy for You is in comparison just a nice debut LP. But the concept is the same. It’s why the undeniably limited lyrical approach of that album’s “Our Deal” succeeds and the similar tactic of The Only Place’s “My Life” doesn’t. The former feels like someone crafting a swell if not particularly amazing little ditty, and the latter registers like someone under a spotlight attempting to stretch out an underdeveloped idea.

And stylistically Cosentino’s songwriting tends toward the middle of the road, leaving her better moments here (“Last Year,” “Dreaming My Life Away”) to wither amidst a batch of inferior material. To his credit, Brion really pulls out all the stops on the closer “Up All Night,” easily The Only Place’s most surprising moment. It’s a song strong enough in its root form that its lush expansion sounds truly complimentary.

But the majority of the album resonates like Cosentino fronting a sprightly if far from remarkable indie combo, and that’s not what Crazy for You sounded like at all. If it were possible to hear The Only Place’s songs through the sonic framework of its far superior forerunner, I’d surely be tempted to do so. And I don’t think Cosentino is anywhere near creatively spent, I just perceive her as having (hopefully temporarily) lost the plot of what made her music so interesting.

When Pavement, Sebadoh, and Guided by Voices all went hi-fi (so to speak), all three proved up to the task. True, they were all bands, and in contrast Best Coast is Cosentino’s show (with help from multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno). But they also had great songs on their side, and again the lack of such is The Only Place’s unfortunate undoing. Its content might very likely improve by crackling out of a fuzzy transistor radio, but going to the trouble of testing that theory seems like a lot of unnecessary work when Crazy for You already achieves that synthesis.

In trying to graduate to a bogus manifestation of the “big leagues,” Cosentino has only managed in amplifying her music’s limitations. But she’s still an artist to watch, and The Only Place might eventually be considered her sophomore slump, especially if she manages further development as a songwriter. Her easiest road would be to just relax, pack it up, and get back to the bedroom.

Graded on a Curve: C-

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