Music Reviews
California Nights

Best Coast California Nights

(Harvest) Buy it from Insound Rating - 5/10

Consider for a moment what I call the Best Coast follow-up albums quandary: the California (in case you weren’t aware) duo’s debut, Crazy for You, was great both because of and in spite of its almost-childlike simplicity, both musically and lyrically. The emotional directness, the endearing fuzziness of the production and, above all, the charm of singer-guitarist Bethany Cosentino made for an unexpectedly irresistible pop alchemy. But here’s the rub: this isn’t the kind of thing that holds up over the long run. Part of its appeal is in its unrepeatable nature, and any attempt to simply rekindle the album’s adolescent charm and nothing more would make people see the band as incapable of growth or originality. But here’s the other rub: if Best Coast does develop in sound and ambition, it ruins so much of what made Crazy for You so wonderful - the freshness, the tossed-off, let’s-make-a-catchy-song-about-boys abandon of it. Nobody ever listened to Our Deal and thought, “that was good, but I wish it was about twice as long.”

The quandary played out in 2012’s The Only Place, which found Cosentino and bandmate Bobb Bruno struggling to make an impression with a more modern indie-pop sound. It wasn’t impossible that growing musically could improve their returns, but they proved mostly unable to do so in any interesting way. It seemed like all of their developments were cosmetic, with the band still unable to break free from any of their previous constraints. It wasn’t necessarily lacking where Crazy for You was proficient, but it failed at its attempts to do anything more (or differently) than its predecessor.

For their major-label debut California Nights, they try to tackle the quandary from a somewhat different angle: by returning to a narrower sonic palette, albeit one that’s heavier and more complex than anything they’ve attempted before. While it seems like a welcome injection of energy at first, the record’s staggering repetitiveness grows tiresome quickly. This isn’t an album like Japandroid’s Celebration Rock, where the repetition is part of the point, or like Beach House’s Bloom, where it gives the sense of being one cohesive piece of music. It feels like anything outside of the standard indie pop lead-guitar-line-over-corresponding-rhythm-guitar-chords is just out of Cosentino’s songwriting range. Even the lead-ins the the choruses feel identical: the drumming and guitar chords start to hammer directly on the rhythm, building to a tension that Cosentino’s chiming hook releases. And no, Crazy for You wasn't particularly varied, either. But the record’s leanness and instant appeal kept it from becoming stale, and at least it had a balance of rockers and quasi-ballads. Here it’s almost all mid to slightly uptempo variations on the same structure. That’s not to say that these songs are prohibitively bad - Cosentino’s songwriting is more intricate than ever before, weaving the lead and rhythm guitars in impressive-but-familiar patterns. Cosentino’s vocals are melodic and effortlessly catchy as always, but even this eventually starts to work against the record: instead of creating an interesting contrast, the heavier guitars and beach-pop singing bring each other towards a dull middle ground. The guitars weigh the hooks down, and the light-as-air melodies take any potential edge off the instrumentation.

In a way, the album’s most audacious move is its title: considering the band is often criticized for being “too California,” they’re basically putting all their cards on the table as to what they have to say. Again, it doesn’t quite work. The lyrics on California Nights suffer from much the same problem as the music, in that they essentially add superficial layers to the same tired patterns of their previous work. Instead of making them richer, these layers simply take away the distinctive, disarming simplicity and cutting emotional resonance of their earlier work. For all the criticism of Cosentino’s lyrics, she has been able to express multi-dimensional emotions through concise, endearingly personal lyrics. Her attempts to add complexity here don’t go well. The majority of the songs are still about conflicted relationships, and it’s clear she doesn’t have anything to say about them that she hasn’t before. Groan-worthy lines like the title track’s “I stay high all the time / Just to get by / I climb into the sky / and my eyes, they cry” are Cosentino’s attempt at moving into more obscured meanings. Her lackings as a lyricist are harder to ignore (or enjoy) when they’re afforded such self-seriousness.

While California Nights doesn’t offer a more sophisticated version of Best Coast so much as a blander one, the heightened ambition of the songwriting and production could be an important step forward for the band. Moving past their increasingly tiresome adolescence, however, is going to take some more meaningful and engaging changes, and realizing that growing up means more than a bigger sound.