[14 May 2012]
PopMatters Music Editor
When the word first got out that Best Coast was working with über-producer Jon Brion for its sophomore effort The Only Place, more than a few eyebrows were raised over the incongruous pairing of the L.A. duo’s flaky lo-fi approach and the symphonic-pop impresario’s slick aesthetic. But really, anyone who’s been tracking the stratospheric rise of Bethany Cosentino shouldn’t have been surprised, since making a big pop statement would be the final bulletpoint to tick off a to-do list of attention-grabbing moves that’s been growing since Best Coast’s charming 2010 debut Crazy for You bubbled up from the underground and into the mainstream. After all, Best Coast had already gone Hollywood with the MTV-commissioned video for “Our Deal”, which was directed by Cosentino’s reported BFF Drew Barrymore and featured young Young Hollywood in a West Side Story 2K scenario. Then there’s Cosentino’s foray onto the runway, designing her own boutique-y collection for Urban Outfitters. Calling herself a “businesswoman” and Best Coast her “brand” in a recent interview, Cosentino has set herself up to take a star turn on The Only Place, with the resources, rep, and charisma to hit it big.
Unfortunately, the band—not brand—isn’t able to take full advantage of perfect timing and enviable marketability on The Only Place, because it seems like Cosentino has slacked off at her day job as a musician while she’s been busy building her multi-platform mini-empire. Although it’s certainly not fair to begrudge Cosentino for her ambitions and success, The Only Place can’t live up to the hype, giving little evidence that Best Coast’s musical chops have evolved at the same pace its profile has. It’s almost as if Brion’s crystal-clear production and some slight touches of strings are supposed to count as progress in and of themselves, when all the collaboration really does is bring to light Best Coast’s limitations. Relying on the single trick of stretching out vowels to give the illusion that it’s bigger than it is, Cosentino’s sing-songy voice lacks much range, while there’s little change in tempo from one brief ditty to the next, which basically run the gamut from brisk to slightly brisker. Yet whereas Best Coast could make up for its blemishes with endearing, earworming melodies on Crazy for You, Cosentino’s songwriting surprisingly misses the mark on The Only Place, rarely catchy enough here to get you to overlook that she’s too caught up in herself at some points, and too vague and trite at others. If anything, The Only Place makes you wish, for better or worse, that Cosentino and multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno had swung for the orchestral-pop fences with all bells and whistles at their disposal, because what they come up with here isn’t able to bask in the spotlight that Brion’s handiwork provides for ‘em.
A big part of why The Only Place falls short is that Cosentino isn’t nearly as relatable this time around, as she bemoans the trappings of success and trips out about judgmental naysayers rather than expressing her day-to-day trials and tribulations through vivid, detail-oriented vignettes about losing her boyfriend’s favorite t-shirt or comparing herself to superior college girls. While Cosentino was usually able to hit the sweet spot where sentimental and snarky meet before, her affect feels way off on The Only Place. Okay, the local color of the title track kicks off the album with a little giddy-up and some good vibrations as Cali girl Cosentino pays homage to her home state, but it’s downers like “Last Year” and “My Life” that set the tone early on, bringing to mind a monotonous June gloom rather than an endless summer. For someone known as a free spirit and who’s currently on a pretty nice winning streak, Cosentino strikes the wrong chord on “My Life” when she wants “To go back in time / Make what’s wrong feel right,” getting you to wonder what’s so wrong with a career that seems to be going so right. What makes such sentiments feel a bit insincere is not just the tone-deaf hyperbole of lines like “I don’t wanna die / I wanna live my life,” but also the disconnect between the woe-is-me lyrics and the jingle-jangle mood of the music. Even more jarring is the seemingly autobiographical “Last Year”, a grungy waltz on which Cosentino comes off self-consciously cynical about, well, her business and brand, as she sings, “I just keep on spending my money / One day it will be gone / And then I’ll have to write another song.”
All the venting on The Only Place gets to be overbearing as Cosentino becomes more and more defiant, defensive, and paranoid through the course of the album. The main point of the doo-woppy “How They Want Me to Be” seems to be that her fame and fortune have changed everyone around her, though not Cosentino herself, as she languidly sneers, ‘All of my friends stick up their noses / They ask where my money is / And where does it go once I spend it?” But lashing out is hardly self-affirming for Cosentino, as she defines her self-identity in reaction to what others think, seeking approval from her significant other—“You don’t want me to be / How they want me to be”—to stick it to the haters. On “Better Girl”, her solution seems to be either to play dumb (“You gotta keep me away from what they say about me”) or give into what’s expected of her, as she resolves, “I want to be a better girl.”
What’s most off-putting about track after track complaining of the burdens of newfound success is that it feels more contrived than introspective, since Best Coast hasn’t developed the musical vocabulary and emotional register to dig deeper. Perhaps more than any other track on The Only Place, there’s something that just doesn’t jive with “Better Girl”, as the jaunty tone hardly matches the deep-seated insecurities that Cosentino tries to express. Likewise, “Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To” comes off disingenuous when Cosentino laments, “When did my life stop being so fun?,” though the bigger problem with the meandering tune is how she never varies from the same awkward, drawn-out vocal pattern on a string of non-sequitur verses. With so much of the album coming off like Cosentino’s prebuttals to the backlash that inevitably comes with more attention and acclaim, the negativity of The Only Place becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since it’s Best Coast’s own lackluster effort that opens the door for criticism and skepticism.
That’s not to say The Only Place doesn’t have its moments, but they’re ultimately not bold and fresh enough to avoid being drowned out by the self-absorbed kvetching. The high-spirited traveling song “Let’s Go Home” is more like what Best Coast is capable of, but it’s buried near the end of the album and, more or less, repeats the sentiments of “The Only Place”. While the poignant sway of “No One Like You” is the closest Best Coast gets to living up to the trad-country sounds Cosentino was talking up in advance of the album’s release, it can’t stand up to the bad vibes of the tracks sandwiching it. And when Best Coast tries to recapture some of Crazy’s magic with the earnest closer “Up All Night”, Cosentino ends up in self-parody in spite of herself, all but baiting those who mock her lyrics as some Mad-libbed jumble of the words crazy, lazy, and bored, as she croons, “Just too crazy / And far too bored / And way too lazy / To make it work,” on yet another song about bailing on yet another relationship.
Ultimately, what’s most frustrating about The Only Place is that growing Best Coast as a brand doesn’t go hand-in-hand with growing as a band. So maybe the sky’s the limit for Best Coast as an enterprise, but The Only Place only ends up highlighting Cosentino’s ceiling as a performer and songwriter.