By Eleni P. Austin
“I stay high all the time just to get by…California nights make me feel so happy I could die, but I try to stay alive.” That brittle and beautiful couplet, from the title track of their new album, illustrates the sly dichotomy of Best Coast.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Bethany Cosentino became infatuated with music at an early age. She was inspired in equal measure by Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Weezer and Blink-182. She began writing her own songs at age 15. After posting her fledgling songs on Myspace, (remember Myspace?), she was offered a few record deals. She wisely begged off, afraid she would be marketed as the next Miley Cyrus.
By her late teens, Cosentino was hanging at The Smell. The downtown L.A. all-ages, DIY venue honored the spirit of defunct Punk performance spaces like the Masque and Jabberjaw. It also became home to celebrated indie bands like No Age and Abe Vigoda. After meeting Amanda Brown there, the pair began writing and recording experimental music as Pocahaunted.
Cosentino and Brown formed Not Not Fun Records. Eschewing the compact disc format, they released a series of albums, EPs and singles only on vinyl and cassette. Pocahaunted enjoyed a modicum of success, even opening for Sonic Youth. But they broke up when Cosentino relocated to New York City to attend college.
Majoring in Journalism and creative writing, she interned at Fader magazine, but the native Californian yearned to return home. She split before the end of her second semester. Back in Los Angeles, she connected with multi-instrumentalist, Bobb Bruno.
Bruno had been a fixture in the D.I.Y. L.A. music scene for several years. Despite their 14 year age difference, (an urban legend had it that Bobb had babysat Bethany as a child), the pair bonded over a mutual love of Girl Groups, Joe Meek, Fleetwood Mac, cats and weed.
Signed to the indie label, Mexican Summer, their self-produced debut, Crazy For You arrived in July, 2010. It was a heady combo-platter of lo-fi buzz, insanely catchy melodies and lush girl-group harmonies. Two years later they followed up with their sophomore effort, The Only Place.
The pair enlisted Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye West), to handle production chores. He tweaked their winning formula just enough to keep their sound fresh without seeming repetitive. Some critics groused that the album seemed too polished, but really it was a logical leap forward. The title track was a winsome ode to 31st state that should become California’s unofficial anthem.
Now three years later Best Coast is back with their third effort, California Nights. It’s being released through the Harvest label, an off-shoot of Capitol Records.
The album opens tentatively with “Feeling Ok.” Hushed synths give way to sparkly guitar riffs and a mid-tempo beat. The lyrics insist that love is the ultimate panacea; “Today I know I’ll feel ok, Baby look at me with those eyes of grey/But I’ll keep trying to stay this way, I know it’s love that’s got me feeling this way.”
The next two tracks offer a one-two punch that kicks the album into overdrive. Punky power chords crest over a pounding Surf-Rock beat and a hook-filled melody on “Fine Without You.”
Initially, it sounds as though Cosentino is offering a heartbroken friend some sage advice, but really, she’s addressing herself. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been living a lie, I always tried but it was never enough/It got so tough out there without you, and now I pace alone in my room wondering how to be fine without you.”
“Heaven Sent” flips the lovelorn script of “Fine…”. Powered by a pummeling backbeat and guitars that alternately fuzz, buzz and jangle, instrumentation mirrors the frisson of mutual attraction. Impossibly, the momentum accelerates and the velocity of Bruno’s guitar attack is ferocious in all the right ways.
Of course the title track is the centerpiece of the album. Anchored by slo-burn guitar and prickly keys, this isn’t another summery encomium ala’ “The Only Place.” Taking their cues from films like “Chinatown,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Less Than Zero,” this song explores the noir heart that beats beneath L.A.’s sunny exterior.
Romantic ennui has always been Cosentino’s leitmotif, that theme plays out on several tracks here, most notably “In My Eyes,” “So Unaware” and “Fading Fast.” Skittery guitars and a hand-clap beat propels “In My Eyes.” Here, Cosentino addresses an ex she took for granted; “I treated you badly we ended so sadly, wish I didn’t care.”
“So Unaware” weds sinewy guitars riffs to a see-saw rhythm. Cosentino doubles down on the self-flagellation. “It’s always dark at five p.m. and I can’t get you out of my head/I stay awake, I stay alone and I don’t even answer the phone.”
Finally, it’s impossible to resist “Fading Fast.” It’s anchored by a rollicking rhythm, tilt-a-whirl guitars and a swingy, sing-song melody that belies super sad lyrics like “This love will be the death of me…”.
Best Coast gives the listener their version of Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” on a couple of tracks, “When Will I Change” and “Jealousy.” But there are also hints of other L.A. touchstones like the Byrds and the Go-Go’s.
The former blends chiming guitar licks, a tumbling back-beat and sweet-sour multi-tracked harmonies as Cosentino anxiously hopes for better days; “Visions of hope visions of love, more than before I want them to come.”
The latter is built around a kinetic drum pattern, angular guitar chords and infectious sha-la-la undertones. Here, Cosentino seems honestly perplexed by the fairer sex’s need to remain critical and competitive. “Girls will be girls and boys will be boys, that’s just the way it is/I don’t wanna hate you I don’t wanna judge you so I’ll try to get to know you before I decide.”
Other interesting tracks include the anxious “Sleep Won’t Ever Come” and “Run Through My Head” The album closes with the spacy Spaghetti Western grandeur of “Wasted Time.”
Best Coast received a little help on this record. The album was produced by Wally Gagel. An industry veteran, Gagel has been engineering, mixing, producing and playing for over 20 years, with artists as disparate as Bon Iver, Rolling Stones, Eels, Norah Jones, Vampire Weekend and P.J. Harvey. Along with production chores, he handles percussion, bass synthesizer, keyboards and guitar. Brady Miller was also on-hand, providing extra drums, guitar, percussion and keyboards.
California Nights represents the next step in the evolution of Best Coast. They continue to hone their signature, sun-drenched, sound, but just beneath the shiny happy surface, are knotty emotions and moments of sadness and despair. Angst has never sounded so pretty.