For purists holding their noses with one hand, Best Coast will never be “lo-fi” enough; to them, the heart-on-sleeve realness of the band’s debut, Crazy for You, was a wrought-together masterpiece of everything they wanted Best Coast to be, ad infinitum: a weed-friendly Spectorian mélange of The Beach Boys and the earnestness of Lena Dunham. But Best Coast hasn’t been that band since 2012’s The Only Place (a slickened attempt at alt-country). On California Nights—the band’s third full-length album and major label debut—they’re a more arena-friendly, quasi-Paramore act that blends pop-punk with declarations of vulnerability. At the same time, Best Coast seems to be running out of canvas. This is their ”’90s record,” which follows two previous archaeological explorations of the ‘60s and ‘70s—in which they fetishized over California like a ‘90s gangsta rapper too stubborn to chill out.
So California Nights is undoubtedly the duo’s final paean to palm trees. On the album’s 12 tracks, Cosentino’s gift as a melodist acts like a rudder on their sea-changing journey towards newness. The title track, their longest song, is a much-needed sorbet during their journey between anthemic choruses and straight-head power pop. In that sense, California Nights is a hook-filled guitar record, like Weezer’s Blue Album, with a more muscular rhythm section than anything we heard on previous Best Coast records.
Tracks like “Feeling OK,” “Fine Without You” and “Heaven Sent” are nods to ‘90s post-grunge records by Hole, Weezer and Veruca Salt (“In My Eyes” opens with the riff that sounds like Bush’s “Glycerine.”) Cosentino even pronounces “eventually” as “ventually” in the bouncy verse for “Fine Without You”—a grungy accent that’s part Courtney Love, part Brody Dalle of the Distillers, minus the baritone growl. Producer Wally Gagel’s use of a vocalizer and auto-tune, as well as a heavily processed bass on “Fading Fast” which sounds like Muse’s “Starlight,” has all the trappings of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll. Best Coast balances the slickness with surprising choices, like a slide guitar on “Fading Fast” and a jangling intro on “Heaven Sent” that twinkles like a stick of dynamite before it explodes. As a result, California Nights doesn’t sound like a typical Best Coast record. The sameness they’re so often criticized for, the result of recycled riffs and similar-sounding melodies, is seemingly melted away by a denser production. California Nights, in its willingness to sound more dynamic, also strips away the honesty from Cosentino’s voice. The result is a loss of innocence. Even when they occasionally look back, like the ‘60s girl-group “sha-la-la’s” on the bridge of “Jealousy,” it sounds disjointed in a Gwen Stefani-influenced track with a Rock Steady groove.
But alas, the Best Coast apologist can point to a timid leap, the moment where Best Coast embraced an arena-ready sound with gusto. For their detractors, a record marketed for two years as their ‘90s album, an exploration of the darker side of California, is nothing more than Best Coast chipping away at the same monolith. Songs about jealousy, depression, insomnia, heartache, even dependency on prescription medication—we’ve been there before. Even as Cosentino discusses existential terrors on tracks like “So Unaware,” the subtext is the same. This makes you wonder if she owns a pen, or just memorizes this stuff—like Jay Z going off the dome. California Nights also includes Cosentino’s fixation on ‘50s teen-clichés, like anxiously waiting by a telephone, and outdated June Cleaver-isms we can do without: “Girls will be girls/Boys will be boys/It’s just the way it is,” which Cosentino sings on the bridge of “Jealousy,” which is schmaltzy, even for Cosentino.
In the end, California Nights has a powerful sound, and some of the catchiest songs Cosentino has ever written. It also lacks the celebration of amateurism that made Best Coast so relatable in the first place. After six years, the appeal of Best Coast’s indefatigable drive the be the ne plus ultra of California has simply run its course.