There is perhaps no single genre label that can become so confining as the “lo-fi” tag. Los Angeles duo Best Coast know first-hand the frustrations of dealing with that misleading pest. The group quickly worked at ridding themselves of it ever since their debut record, Crazy For You, earned the band significant buzz and a rabid following in the year 2010. Their followup, 2012’s The Only Place, was the first step in shedding the ragged sound of their debut, incorporating ‘70s singer-songwriter and country-rock influences, while adding a marked degree of studio sheen to their jangly surf sound.
Best Coast’s latest release, California Nights, is perhaps the final death knell to their lo-fi days. On it, they double-down on the slickness of their second album and turn out a glossy, meat-and-potatoes guitar record with strong references to late ‘90s alternative radio rock.
This muscular new approach works best on album opener “Feeling Ok”, a shimmering slice of power-pop in keeping with frontwoman Bethany Consentino’s low-key lyrical traditions and tendency towards big, anthemic hooks. The guitars are crunchy and loud; in fact. I don’t recall hearing guitars this thick on a pop/rock record since Weezer’s Green Album, an album whose influence can be felt in abundance throughout California Nights. Just like Weezer’s 2001 platinum-seller, California Nights operates on a remarkably simple premise of pummeling the listener with a string of no-frills, hook-laden rockers, a strategy that partially works.
The album quickly picks up steam after the opening cut with the shaggy pop-punk of “Fine Without You” and reaches maximum velocity with the one-two-punch of the lovely, Stone Roses-tinged chime of “Heaven Sent”, and what probably should have been the album’s lead single “In My Eyes”, recalling the best of ‘90s bubblegum.
However, while California Nights doesn’t run out of steam after that, the avalanche of hooks and waves of power chords become simply overwhelming. The four-on-the-floor, guitar, bass and drums approach is worn out well by the first half’s strongest tunes, and after these six tracks—about 20 minutes in—that simplicity turns out to be masking a lack of dynamics. Songs like “Jealousy” and “So Unaware” are redundant to the point that you’ll swear that you’ve already heard them a few track’s earlier, and that the latter contains the album’s most unfortunate lyrics does it no favors (“what is life, what is love, what is the meaning of it all”). The second half of the record is worth your patience, however, if only due to the strengths of the languid title track that nicely breaks up the cycle of rockers with spacey electronics and lite-psych melodies, as well as the girl-group homage “When Will I Change” that most closely resembles the duo’s earlier, ‘60s indebted sound.
Those who have criticised Consentino’s lyrical tendencies in the past as too innocuous and, most curiously, “not feminist enough” are not going to find that their opinions have changed here. Her lyrics, apart from the aforementioned “So Unaware”, deal in the highs and lows (but mostly highs) of everyday life in Southern California and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s interesting to note though, that along with the duo’s musical sensibilities, Consentino’s lyrics seem to be attempting to engage a younger audience, while their core listener-base continues to get older.
Best Coast still have delivered an overall solid album with California Nights, but it remains hard to see how the simplification of their craft and the softening of their image will allow Consentino to attract new listeners without losing the older ones. Nevertheless, this record’s radio-ready sheen, and sugary hooks can’t help but make one wonder if that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.
// Notes from the Road
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