There are more than a few poppy, low-fi bands out there, but Best Coast (and boyfriend Nathan Williams’ band Wavves) have been the big names in the niche. Both bands’ first tunes were so layered in reverb, distortion, and fuzz that it was hard to hear them under their own production. Then, both put out tentpole records in 2010 that had actual, listenable songs: Wavves with the sun-bleached King of the Beach and Best Coast with their reverb-drenched, dreamy debut album Crazy For You. Wavves seemed to clear more noise on last year’s EP Life Sux, leaving a lean, muscular band in its place.
Similarly, The Only Place peels away the layers of reverb that has become part of Best Coast’s identity, but allows other traits of the band to shine through stronger. Instead, producer Jon Brion opts for a warm, breezy production that gives new clarity to the band’s instrumentation. It’s a move that might have killed Crazy For You, but completely fits The Only Place; this is easily the stronger record from a musical standpoint. The songs are still centered on fairly basic chord progressions and verse-chorus structure, but there’s actual bass in the mix, and singer/guitarist Bethany Cosentino uses some more slightly more advance rhythm arrangements. Multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno keeps his work simple as well, but his guitar lines sound more thought out and less random, strengthening some songs (the title track in particular).
And out in the very front is Bethany Cosentino’s voice and lyrics. While her voice took up the most space on Best Coast’s debut, it was kept somewhat afar with vocal effects that helped her bleed into the band. But here, she out in the clear with almost no modifications, and much less double-tracking. On the band’s earlier material, it was easy to consider the reverb as a production trick to hide a lack of talent, but Cosentino’s actually a pretty strong vocalist, and she doesn’t lack for enthusiasm.
Additionally, she seems to be trying harder on lyrics. The only “crazy/lazy” rhyme comes on closer “Up All Night”, which originally appeared on a pre-Crazy For You EP, and while the rhymes are still somewhat predictable, they are far more varied on The Only Place. Likewise, the themes changed for this record; in an interview, Cosentino said that this was to be an honest record, inspired by Drake’s Take Care from last year. And while it might not be the stark confessional that record was, The Only Place is a very vulnerable album. There are still songs about boys, but they’re less “I wish he was my boyfriend” and more “You don’t want me to be how they want me to be/I don’t want to be how they want me to be”. Other parts of the album deal with the pressures of being (relatively) famous while having social anxiety: wanting to be home, dealing with vices, extended exhaustion and insecurity, and a spot of depression.
So, then how does all of this tweaking and changing work on a song by song level? Consistently well, actually. The album opens with a two-song spurt of energy from “The Only Place” and “Why I Cry” before settling into a mid-tempo groove with some ballads (“How They Want Me To Be”, “No One Like You”) added in. Things pick up again once you hit “Let’s Go Home”, which works as a solid lead in for string-tinged closer “Up All Night”, a holdover from Best Coast’s demo days. There’s slightly more variety here than on Crazy For You, but, like that album, The Only Place peters out towards the end, this time with “Dreaming My Life Away”. The title track, “Why I Cry”, “My Life”, “No One Like You”, and others make up for it, though.
While not as immediately rewarding or upbeat as Best Coast’s first works, The Only Place is a fine step in the band’s evolution. While part of me misses the reverb, Best Coast works better without it, although this album could use a bit more distortion. I can see it being a great summer record because of its warm sound, but a bit of a comforting downer from the lyrics–while Cosentino might write from a fairly unique perspective, her themes are more universal. The pleasures might not be as quick, but they rarely are growing up, aren’t they? Four out of five stars.
tl;dr: Best Coast lose the fuzz, gain some insight, 4/5.