opinion by ZACH BERNTEIN
An adorable calico cat enjoys the sunset shade of a palm tree. A non-threatening brown bear hugs the state of California. A pair of cooler-than-thou musicians reflect in a shimmering swimming pool. One of these things is not like the others. Best Coast forsake the cutesy cartoons that adorned the cover art of their previous full-lengths. Instead, they have opted for a gorgeous dusk photograph to frame their third record California Nights. It’s the sleekest and priciest image that the band has ever presented. Bethany Cosentino always knew she was cooler than the rest of us. This is the first time she’s really showing it.
This record sleeve reinvention is a harbinger of the sonic approach found on California Nights. The album is by far the most polished, pristinely executed, and festival-ready work the band has ever produced. Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno have been transitioning from the lo-fi 60s pop sound of debut Crazy For You with each release. But their latest effort drops the girl-group harmonies and scuzz, almost entirely. Instead, they favor swooping, skywriting guitars and crystal clear, surround sound vocals. The band has swapped lazy Golden State days for steamy, titular Nights. Fortunately for Best Coast fans, the song remains pretty much the same. Best Coast have never been particularly complicated. They write simple, catchy tunes about awkward hookups and young adult angst. A hazy San Fernando backdrop, not only a setting, functions as a supporting character. Those pieces all remain predictably present on California Nights. They’ve just been rearranged into a shinier package.
As beautiful as the album cover may be, the music itself sounds just as glorious. Opener “Feeling Ok” and the title track swirl and swoop. Edge-channeling layers of guitar descend from on high to soundtrack any highway drive down Big Sur. The drum-hits boom and echo, bigger and clearer than ever on bouncy cuts like “In My Eyes” and “Heaven Sent”. Droning guitar feedback and distortion, sidelined here, never detract from the clean new-wave vibe. If Best Coast once cribbed their aesthetic from 60s girl groups, that ethos undergoes a minor, bratty update here. Save for the sha-la-las on “Jealousy”, the Go-Gos and Gwen Stefani supplant the Shangri-Las as obvious reference points.
This is a more sophisticated sound for Best Coast. But it doesn’t do too much to combat the somewhat monotonous singularity of their sound. We pale East Coasters wouldn’t be able to appreciate the California sun if we didn’t regularly live under so many clouds. California Nights is a lot of surf and ultimately not that much substance. Granted, we’ve never expected startling detours and too much sonic experimentation from Best Coast. The newest album won’t subvert those expectations, but it won’t disappoint them either.
Cosentino and Bruno’s latest effort doesn't exhibit too much of an adventurous spirit. But her lyrics remain as pleasantly prickly as ever. Like fellow former child star turned L.A. chanteuse Jenny Lewis, Cosentino has a gift for turning romantic frustration and personal crisis into bon mots. Crumbled relationships are a constant topic of conversation. “Jealousy” sports a refrain with a hilarious and direct question: “Why don’t you like me?” On first inspection, “Feeling Ok” is a stereotypical beautiful morning song. That is, until you realize that Cosentino is singing about going off her medication. “When Will I Change?” exercises one of the record’s more insanely catchy melodies. It articulates twenty-something dissatisfaction with the line “it’s not that bad, and I have no reason to be sad / but I find a way almost every day to stay this way.” On a record with upbeat but intermittently plain songcraft, the playfully barbed lyrics offer a genuine saving grace. A welcome bit of cyncism darkens all the the sun-drenched euphoria. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to give the record any real thematic heft.
There’s a new California tourism ad campaign airing on television that seeks to dispel the idea that locals are “just a bunch of dreamers with their heads in the clouds.” Obviously that’s a gross generalization. But the ad, a collection of surfing, skateboarding, and camping imagery, doesn’t do that much to argue against that characterization. California Nights is the musical equivalent of that stereotype. It’s a pleasant, undemanding pop-rock record that one can hear without needing to listen. Like the rest of Best Coast’s body of work, its essence boils down to “sun, love, California.” On closer “Wasted Time”, Cosentino intones “I don’t mind all this wasted time, I just wish I had something to show for it.” That’s California Nights in a nutshell. It’s an enjoyable and diversionary, if not particularly nutritious, experience. B-