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SPIN Essentials

Best Coast, ‘The Only Place’ (Mexican Summer)

Simply the Best
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: May 15, 2012
Label: Mexican Summer

The second Best Coast album opens with perhaps the biggest red herring in the history of recorded music. Like the name of the band itself, the title track celebrates the mythical California of sun and fun, as Bethany Cosentino surfs a peppy beat, exclaiming, “Why would you live anywhere else?” amidst bright, jangly guitars. If the state’s tourist board hasn’t licensed this charming, feel-good song for a promotional campaign yet, it’s only a matter of time.

Then everything goes horribly wrong. The sound of The Only Place sticks to what has already become Best Coast’s signature recipe — Cosentino’s insanely catchy tunes and her sweet, winning voice, shaped by the precise pop-rock embellishments of multi-instrumental sidekick Bobb Bruno. They’re rendered more clearly than before, thanks to Jon Brion’s undistorted production, but say adios to that happy-go-lucky vibe. In song after song, Cosentino’s mood is pure undisguised misery, as she shares not just boyfriend woes, but confronts jealous acquaintances, feels the sting of gossipy haters, worries about money and substance excess, and generally feels like crap. How could Best Coast’s early success and rising profile already result in such bitterness and cynicism?

But the existential angst won’t come as a shock to veteran observers. While The Only Place is officially Best Coast’s second full-length, she’s generated another two albums or so of material over the band’s brief existence via b-sides, web posts, etc., making it possible to chart the unguarded Cosentino’s mercurial state of mind in something close to real time. (Sharp mood swings are a recurring theme.) Last year, she shared a demo for “How They Want Me to Be,” offering a memorable glimpse of her dissatisfaction: Cosentino sighs that her friends — and mother! — ask prying questions, even as she agonizes over how strangers view her and chafes against their expectations. On The Only Place, that song is followed by “Do You Love Me Like You Used To,” which asks, “When did my life stop being so fun?”; there’s also “Last Year,” where she admits, “Now I believe in nothing.” Clearly, somebody needs a reassuring hug (or to stop reading snarky blogs).

Don’t mistake Cosentino’s unfiltered candor for drab self-indulgence or whining, though. The Only Place delivers riveting drama in a rousing pop package, with Brion rescuing Best Coast from the fuzzed-out, lo-fi indie template, cleaning up their sound and enhancing the potential for mainstream appeal exponentially without diminishing their artistic credibility. This uncluttered landscape reveals Cosentino to be a deceptively skilled singer with a gift for marrying troubled lyrics to exuberant melodies. Check out the moving “My Life,” where she wails, “My mom was right, I don’t wanna die, I wanna live my life,” as the song soars heavenward.

By attracting the support of a crafty studio technician who’s collaborated with idiosyncratic major talents such as Fiona Apple and Kanye West, Best Coast raised the bar, but Brion’s willingness to sign on suggested that he saw great potential in the group after 2010’s breakthrough debut Crazy for You. And The Only Place confirms his instincts. Cosentino encompasses a startling range of ideas within a seemingly uncomplicated style. Like Fleetwood Mac — she recently covered Stevie Nicks’ “Storms” on the BBC — she’s expert at wrapping harsh emotions in pretty packages. Like early rock’n’rollers, she understands that simplicity can be the best vehicle for complex sentiments; note the ambivalent love song “No One Like You,” a direct descendant of Rosie & the Originals’ eerie 1960 teen ballad “Angel Baby.” Like old-school country singers, she favors directness, as a terrific cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” showed last year.

And like traditional blues singers, Cosentino seeks to overcome bad times by sharing them with others. When she sings, “I want to be a better girl,” you get the feeling that she’s looking for a way to escape from a very dark place. If great art is its own reward, The Only Place gives her one real reason to be optimistic.