Album of the Week: Best Coast, 'California Nights'


Best Coast, 'California Nights'
Best Coast, 'California Nights' (© 2015 Harvest Records.)

In the buildup to the release of Best Coast's third full-length album, California Nights, I issued an observation-cum-prediction: Best Coast would be one of those bands who got progressively worse reviews, despite the fact that in reality, they're steadily improving. This was going to be Best Coast's best album yet, and inexplicably, their album that was least-well-received by critics to date.

This isn't the first band upon whom this fate has befallen; the Strokes are an excellent example of this (I'll strongly vouch for the fact that their first three albums represented an upwards trajectory of quality, rather than the other way around), but another example that comes to mind is the Ramones. Although the Ramones' Rocket to Russia has since come to be recognized as their critical high-water mark, it's their self-titled debut that appears on all the canonical best-of lists.

One could easily make a case that correlates the Ramones to Best Coast, given their strong regionalism to their respective coasts, their endless supply of catchy guitar tracks and the embedded simplicity within their lyrics. Joey Ramone's lyrics were always more clever than they appeared at first glance, though; the key question is whether Bethany Cosentino's lyrics are in fact improving to the level of Ramone's sly subversiveness, or whether they're still placeholders to fill out the songs. Cosentino's lyrical tropes are all still present: songs about love, lovers, California and getting high, all delivered with her trademark repetitiveness that can begin to feel like performance art. Mind you, her lyrics are no longer a distracting detriment as with past releases; they work well within the context of all the songs on the album. Cosentino remains an engaging vocalist, delivering terrific vocal performances across the board, often winning the listener over through sheer charisma.

One of Best Coast's strongest assets is Bobb Bruno's continued emergence as a guitarist and instrumentalist. Like Ryan Adams' underrated Rock N Roll, California Nights is a tour through multiple eras and epochs of guitar rock, making each song not only enjoyable but also a fun thought exercise (wait, is this one B-52s? or Veruca Salt?). Another touchstone is Weezer's terrific comeback effort from last year, on which both Cosentino and Bruno appeared, and the Weezer influence is strikingly apparent on "Run Through My Head," to the point where I checked to see if Rivers Cuomo had a co-writing credit. "Fading Fast" cribs a guitar line from Arcade Fire's "City with No Children" (which in turn cribbed its guitar line from "Jessie's Girl" and "20th Century Boy") and "Fine Without You" continues the band's welcome embrace of the sound of the Neko Case tracks on the New Pornographers' Electric Version. (See Fade Away's "This Lonely Morning" for an early experiment with this style). The title track, "California Nights," is as smoggy and aimless as its subject, with Cosentino providing a suitably restless vocal.

My favorite songs on the record are "Feeling OK" and "In My Eyes," both of which make me feel a subliminal nostalgia for when I was riding the school bus in middle school in the mid-1990s and I'd hear the "mainstream alt" acts on the radio, such as No Doubt or Bush. "In My Eyes," in fact, rides the familiar "Glycerine" chord progression before exploding into a chorus that summons visions of Liz Phair in every possible way. On one hand, it's a song that could have been written by anyone at any point over the last 30 years; on the other hand, it's probably the song I've played the most over the last two months. Single "Feeling OK," meanwhile, is a hopeful fist-pumper than gives a glimmer of hope that Best Coast may yet produce a power ballad as great as "Don't Speak."

In my Top 89 of 2012 writeup, I named "The Only Place" one of my favorite songs of the year, with the caveat that "Best Coast aren't a great band; they may not even be a good band." As their career has progressed, they've not only firmly surpassed the "good" threshhold, they may well be on the verge of crossing into the "great" realm. In the meantime, I'll be spinning California Nights another dozen times just to check.

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  • Best Coast perform at the SXSW Public Radio Day Stage Fiercely proud of their Southern California roots, Best Coast perform at the Public Radio Day Stage at the 2015 South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. Their next album, 'California Nights', comes out on May 4.

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