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Album review: Best Coast's 'The Only Place'

May 15, 2012 |  5:00 am

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Fans concerned that Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno, who perform under the moniker Best Coast, would succumb to the pressure of high expectations can relax. On their sparkling second album, the Los Angeles duo, whose 2010 debut, “Crazy for You,” brought them international sing-along acclaim, offers little evidence that they care about impressing critics or alienating the less commercially-attuned. Personal expectations, however, are another story, as Cosentino throughout the new album dives into hopes both dashed and fulfilled involving love, life and her future with both.

Unlike “Crazy for You,” which was buried under a protective layer of distortion, on “The Only Place” a confident Cosentino stands at the front of the stage, seemingly unconcerned with judgment or ambivalence while she sings. With a voice that strives to hit Neko Case and Martha Reeves territory but which more often than not is in the Belinda Carlysle and Suzanna Hoffs range, Cosentino’s strength as a vocalist doesn't come from pitch-perfect vocal tone, but rather, it lies in how she and Bruno craft solid, three and four minute pop songs that suggest everyone from Buddy Holly to the Crystals to the Bangles without sounding like any of them. Best, there’s a uniquely Californian feel to the album, a gloss that’s not so much of the commercial variety as of the feel-good kind.

Part of that vibe arrives courtesy of producer Jon Brion, whose work in Los Angeles over the past two decades has added a new branch to the archetypical “west coast sound” family tree. Brion, best known for his work with Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Kanye West, Brad Mehldau, and dozens of others – as well as the music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic ode to the San Fernando Valley, “Magnolia” -- sequestered the band in Capitol Studios on Vine over the fall and early winter to make “The Only Place,” and you can hear his influence in the album’s cohesion. There, in the same room where the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, and Green Day made some of their classics, Cosentino, Bruno and Brion set to work making magnetic – and focused -- new songs.

On, for example, “Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To,” that feeling is the fear of loving someone too much, of alienating the object of one’s affection through obsession. On “Let’s Go Home,” Cosentino examines the dualistic desire for both the adventure of travel and the comfort of home – and comes down on the side of the latter.

On “The Only Place,” that emotion is the joy of living in Southern California. “Why would you live anywhere else?” she wonders in a song tailor-made for a Chamber of Commerce-funded “I love L.A.” campaign, then lists some of the many charms of the region.

“We’ve got the ocean, got the babes/Got the sun, we’ve got the waves,” she sings before asking her rhetorical question of the title. Part of the answer lies in the weather, of course. But another answer is in the song itself. We also live here for the feeling we get when a good pop song – or, in the case of “The Only Place,” an entire album -- hits the target and conjures the spirit of Southern California.

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–- Randall Roberts
Twitter: @liledit

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