Nothing harshes California’s mellow like California itself. As power-pop lifers Kay Hanley and Linus of Hollywood, who named their band Palmdale for it, once said: “Palmdale sounds like a happy, beautiful place, but it’s actually a bleak, concrete-encased desert town with a very high meth lab-to-people ratio.” It just takes an hour too long at the beach for sun-soaked to turn into sun-sick, after all, and parallel to the carefree music codified by the Beach Boys and pornified by Katy Perry runs a tradition that’s equally indebted to the West Coast, and equally irresistible: the fun-and-sun pop song about dead-end suburbia, sulk-around boredom and bad decisions in sunny weather. California girls, they’re inconsolable—and none more so than the girls who inhabit any given Best Coast song.
Anyone who knows Best Coast probably also knows the Best Coast memes: the cannabis-fueled sulking, the Cathy-approaching levels of pining over boys, the cat Bethany Cosentino wishes could talk, the state of California getting a literal bear hug, the fact that all their songs famously sound the same. As one writer said of the band and its contemporaries, they’re “obsessed with the various qualities of sand, sunshine, friendship, and/or the waves, and they’re too high to take a position on much else.” As a band concept, it’s snappy as a sales pitch, inviting as a June beach and responsible for a lot of fans falling fast in summer love. Still, it’s the sort of thing that, when sustained over more than one album, easily leads to a backlash. As backlashes do, the sniping about Best Coast’s music soon turned into a referendum on their personality, and specifically the personality of Cosentino herself. Her looks, her persona, her relationships (notably with fellow indie kid Wavves) became fodder for sneering-at-best bloggers. These days, even people who like Best Coast tend to liken Cosentino, who is 28, to a “needy, narcissistic teen.”
It shouldn’t have to happen this way. When Best Coast debuted with Crazy For You they were quickly lumped in with what was at the time a surfeit of lo-fi, all-women or at least female-fronted garage bands. This was always an awkward fit, less a scene than a trendpiece, and most of these acts soon abandoned the fuzzy girl-group sound for other lands, like ‘80s mall goth, or breakups. Meanwhile, Best Coast have quietly found themselves in the zeitgeist. Haim, by channeling California cool, have earned a besotten following of music heads and, increasingly, celebrities. Weed, quarter-life crises and power-pop gloss make up Colleen Green’s excellent and much-feted I Want to Grow Up, to name one of a bouquet of flower-powered California acts. The sad-girl act has been lately embraced as an Internet aesthetic (take the 200K follower-strong tweeter @sosadtoday, from—where else?—L.A.). That other California drear-er of note now tops the mainstream charts. Improbably, Best Coast have become underrated.
Luckily, the band’s well-positioned to drop that “under.” California Nights—sharing a name with a track by the late Lesley Gore—is the band’s major-label debut, on Capitol’s Harvest Records, and it sounds it. If The Only Place was Best Coast’s big pop move, then by comparison California Nights is the size of the Hollywood sign. All the fuzz and distance of Best Coast’s previous records has been Lemon Pledged into guitar sparkle; the result’s almost unrecognizable as the product of two people who used to be in a drone-folk band. A lot of the credit here goes to producer Wally Gagel, who produced Best Coast’s last EP Fade Away as well as the power-pop likes of Superchunk, Juliana Hatfield and Tanya Donelly’s post-Belly debut, the underrated Lovesongs for Underdogs. Unlike Jon Brion, who helmed The Only Place, Gagel’s not afraid to go for the hook, and where The Only Place didn’t sound polished so much as sprayed stiff, California Nights sparkles like pavement and sounds great: one shining hook, directed right at your heart.
We’re in the realm of power-pop, in other words, where the band’s always belonged. “When Will I Change” tweaks the riff from Blondie’s “Dreaming”; “Fine Without You” is a dead Letters to Cleo ringer; “Heaven Sent” sounds, gloriously, like half the radio did in 1995. Bobb Bruno races through fast tracks, while Bethany Cosentino pulls syllables like bubblegum, deploys words like punctuation—which is key. The average Best Coast lyric (representative: “why don’t you like me / what’s with the jealousy / sha la la, sha la la…”) can be rewritten with no more than three emoji, and you’d probably end up re-using the same three. But you could say the same of the best power-pop acts—think Shonen Knife, or the Ramones even—and there’s a method to Cosentino’s single-mindedness. The themes are largely unchanged: bad boyfriends, friend breakups, more weed—concentrated on the title track, a psychedelic reverb trip without a scrap of irony—and the push-pull inertia of wanting to grow up and not really wanting to move. By track two Cosentino’s bouncy and hooky, telling herself to stop wasting time and sounding convinced; by track 12 (“Wasted Time”) she doesn’t sound convinced of much of anything but the soporific drift, as easy to get lost in as one slept-away afternoon, then five more.
It’s tempting to call this maturity, but neither the sounds nor the shrugs are anything Best Coast hasn’t dwelled upon since Crazy For You. Go back and re-listen and it’s all there, like re-runs of the same show on the same TV, watched in the same apartments during the same long summers. That’s the point, and it always was. Being 28 and having meandered for years through variations on the same love and life limbo is, to put it lightly, not an unfamiliar scenario for most of Best Coast’s listeners, old or new. California, as it does in so much fiction, becomes a stand-in for the whole country; the California blues turn out to be not that different than any given listener’s own personal inertia. But the trick of this music—a trick Best Coast are very near perfecting—is that it sounds like so much fun.
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