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Live review: Best Coast at the Wiltern

May 21, 2012 |  5:55 am

Musician Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast performs on stage at Global Green USA's 8th annual pre-Oscar party
Bethany Cosentino is perhaps the most on-message songwriter in rock music right now. Over her two albums as Best Coast, including this year’s “The Only Place,” the L.A.-based singer returns to her favorite themes — the pleasures of California, the pangs of coupledom — with the same dedication that Rick Ross applys to describing his car fleet.

But one song that she played at her big homecoming show at the Wiltern on Friday showed she might be growing uncomfortable in that niche. “How They Want Me to Be” is a tender bit of pre-Beatles pop with a light country haze. On Friday, Cosentino played it as a rebuttal to her stereotype as a stoner cat lady-turned-overnight superstar. “All of my friends stick up their noses, ask me where my money is,” she sang. “I don’t want to be how they want me to be.”

Cosentino is a scrappy, relatable songwriter growing into an actual pop star, one with an acumen for self-branding. On Friday, just when all the cats and weed and Californiana edged up to cliché, she’d subvert it with a newfound self-awareness. Best Coast’s show codified one of L.A.’s newest rock stars, but it also showed how “being yourself” is a performance for Cosentino as well.

While on her rise to international fame, she earned plenty of local flak for some obvious moves — famously rhyming “crazy” and “lazy” too many times on her 2010 debut, that funny line about wishing her cat could talk.

But Friday’s set showed a remarkably improved vocalist and a songwriter settling into her talents and looking at new ways to express them. “My Life” and “Better Girl” each had a Patsy Cline lilt, and while in recent years she might have buried their sentiment in angsty fuzz, here she played them spare and spacious.

The move implied a grown-woman sadness rather than post-adolescent frustration, and it’s a good look for her. In particular, the I-screwed-up relationship lament “Better Girl” had a complex mix of desperation brightened with earnestness. She flipped that formula on “The Only Place’s” title track, which reads like a smarter version of Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” but sounds like a native daughter profoundly missing her home. Imagine Jenny Lewis without the acid tongue and a deeper pure pop streak.

The other side of Best Coast’s improvements came from a growing cast of musical partners. The reclusive producer-savant Jon Brion, known for his work with Kanye West and Fiona Apple, didn’t just thicken her new album with his trademark bleary, vintage pop arrangements. He actually joined the live band on guitar for several songs Friday, suggesting a deep belief in Cosentino’s prowess.

In this setting, Cosentino’s longtime Best Coast partner, the multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno, had space for tremolo-soaked leads more befitting Art Laboe’s beloved oldies show than the band’s punky Smell-scene roots. And a longtime complaint about Best Coast live — the lack of a bassist — was remedied with the capable addition of local former Twilight Sleep member Brett Mielke.

Best Coast’s songs are short and undemanding, and the band packed two dozen of them into this hometown victory lap for an audience largely comprising young women in Stevie Nicks regalia, clearly in thrall to a new girl crush.

But the most moving moment of the night came in the encore, when the band covered Fleetwood Mac’s “Storms.” Atop a fog of reverb, Cosentino gave the best pure vocal performance of her career, full of soul-vet runs and bare plaintiveness. It was a side of her that no one saw coming. Off message, perhaps, but maybe a sign of the singer she always wanted to be.

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Photo: Musician Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast performs on stage at Global Green USA's 8th annual pre-Oscar party "Greener Cities For A Cooler Planet" held at Avalon on Feb. 23, 2011, in Hollywood./ Credit: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Global Green)

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