It’s easy to deride Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino on the basis of simplistic, repetitive lyrical schemes; after all, people do it all the time. Nevermind that in Best Coast’s musical arena of choice, indie-rock, it might take bigger balls to release a record with simplistic, dear-diary lyrics than one with intricate, image-rich prose; we’re talking about a genre that generally requires its lyrical content to be a.) opaque and abstract or b.) vivid, thesaurus-enriched, and multilayered.
But nuts to all that; after all, is great pop music borne from the pens of scholarly nerds with a stack of reference books, or from regular joes who apply universal emotion to a fistful of sweet love ditties? It’s not that there’s never any overlap between the two camps – Talking Heads’ twitchy computer-geek energy, Bob Dylan’s dizzying reams of dense, lyrical rat-a-tat, Vampire Weekend’s Ivy League world-pop – but great pop music is attainable with or without flexing intellect. Cosentino’s prose seems Xeroxed straight from paper-bag school book covers and Xanga archives, it’s true, but the snobs seem to conveniently forget that pop architects like The Beatles and Beach Boys cut their teeth on the same hook-y brand of doe-eyed adolescent poetry. And with a sweet alto, honeyed harmonies, and a bushel of mellow beach jams in tow, Best Coast aren’t aiming for your brain with The Only Place: they’re aiming to soundtrack your next pool party.
Along for the ride is producer Jon Brion, of Fiona Apple, Kanye West, and the score to your favorite movie fame. He largely steps back from the plate this time around – he’s known for applying his sweeping cinematics to much deeper, more intricate fare than this – and allows Cosentino to do her thing, stepping in only to apply a layer of sunny, hazy clarity to the proceedings. The only thing that really separates The Only Place from debut record Crazy For You is that shimmering production value; Brion has scrubbed all traces of dirt from Best Coast’s signature, lo-fi-nodding sound, and the recording sounds crisp and radio-ready. Cosentino, meanwhile, has beach ditties in her back pocket to spare; the entire record functions as an affection bear hug for her native California, and if the transparent lyrical content didn’t convince you, there’s the hilariously literal rendering of that exact notion on the cover.
If it sounds like I’m criticizing the record for its simplistic leanings, let me set the record straight: The Only Place is a good album. Best Coast excels at marrying beach-pop with the swaying coo of the best girl groups – the title track is a wonderfully saccharine challenge to non-Californians (“why would you live anywhere else?”), eagerly demonstrating the value of Cosentino’s chosen state with chirpy harmonies and bouncy major chords, and songs like “Last Year” and “How They Want Me To Be” need only to have their plucky guitars replaced with a gauzy Phil Spector wall of sound to be Ronettes classics.
The Only Place plays like a summery fever dream; it’s the Hawaiian vacation you never took, a stress-free stroll down the boardwalk at sunset, mojitos at a beachside tiki bar. Songs blend into one another; chord progressions are reused with minimal variation (even the one-two punch of “The Only Place” and “Why I Cry” takes a few minutes to realize that these are two ostensibly different compositions); lyrical content is alternately drippy and lazily defiant (“I don’t want to be how they want me to be”). Still, it’s a dreamy, languid throwback to classic pop that doesn’t have any punches to pull, so it happily coasts on some good old home-state loyalty and an agreeable late-July vibe. Like a less-cerebral version of Tanya Donnelly’s Lovesongs For Underdogs - and if your response to that sentence was anything other than “I own that album, and love it”, get thee to Amazon – The Only Place is a cozy, warm soundtrack to the dog days of summer.