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SPIN Essentials

Review: Best Coast Refuse to Hit Cruise Control on ‘California Nights’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: May 04, 2015
Label: Harvest

Expectation is a finicky, often insurmountable burden attached to nearly every album in the Internet age. It’s impossible to avoid the entirety of a band’s hype, their narrative played out for millions of Twitter followers and casual bystanders alike who tend to take on a touchy familiarity with musicians, a twist that taints the experience of hearing an album for the first time. Underrated “diminishing” returns by bands like Sleigh Bells and TV on the Radio managed to outlast their initial shrug, proving that yes, Virginia, great bands keep pushing out good product when the noise dies down.

Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno fall firmly under that critically hyped microscope with Best Coast, their surf-pop-punk project from guess-where, which has yielded two albums and several EPs prior to California Nights, their most ambitious full-length to date. Buying into basic groupthink means finding the duo’s beach-blanket rock to grow pretty “samey” with each release. Cosentino certainly knows her way around an oceanside guitar anthem (“Summer Mood,” “The Only Place”), but that’s not all they have to offer.

More than anything else, California Nights dims the sunlight, juices up the turmoil, and demands a second look at a band that’s actually been subverting its own pigeonhole since 2009. The laziest way to approach the new LP would be to tag it as their “serious album,” which makes sense if you completely ignored the fine-tuned heartbreak of Crazy for You and its miserably beautiful, Jon Brion-arranged successor, The Only Place. But the story with California Nights is much less emotional than sonic: It’s a case study in Going BiggerTM while fending off the inevitable “struggle to maintain artistic integrity” charge.

Arena-ready production stretches their limits but it succeeds, priming Best Coast for festival main stages, a worthy position considering Cosentino’s innately powerful voice, which has grown in confidence and depth since the band’s early days. The tracks aren’t quite the bedroom-fidelity sleepers they leaned on in the past, but zigging when you could easily just — pardon me — coast is all the more commendable.

Going bigger doesn’t come without growing pains. Nights‘ title track spends a hair too long indulging in starlight shoegazing, a lyrically predictable Ride takeoff spun through the Washed Out cycle probably better suited for show-ending jam sessions. Expectations would also dictate the presence of little doorstops of songs — only one song on Crazy for You finished past the three-minute mark — but those are mostly done away with, allowing for sprawling musings that could’ve benefited from some trimming.

But beyond those hiccups, California Nights is just as its title suggests: an intimate, intricate soundscape with proportions that swallow the listener. It’s dotted with tinier moments of personal revelation like “Jealousy,” a microscopic glance at a fractured relationship (or lack thereof) dressed up with the Shangri-Las’ punchiest “sha-la-la-las.” “Why don’t you like me?” Cosentino repeats in the chorus, demanding an answer from a nameless someone whose answer could only make her sadder. The album achieves that awfully difficult job of relaying small-scale squabbles in big picture.

Part of the fun of California Nights — and don’t get it wrong, the album is on a proud par with their first two — comes from the link Cosentino and Bruno draw between introspection and universality. “Sleep Won’t Ever Come” might not be groundbreaking in the way it tells its story — “Sometimes I’m scared that I won’t wake up / Maybe that’s why this process seems so tough” — but why are you listening to Best Coast for innovation rather than beautiful, quavering melodies and bell-clear ruminations? With songs and production this pumped, they’ll continue to make waves far outside their beloved home state.