Friday, October 29, 2010
Best Coast: Crazy for You (2010)
Bethany Cosentino's songs are dynamite, upgrading the tremendous shimmer, largeness, and beauty of Phil Spector and the girl groups to the era of high fuzz and low fidelity, augmenting songs in the style of the Ronettes and the Shirelles with blazing, distorted guitars and an incessant, stoked California buzz. Within modest means, she evokes the biggest, most powerful primary-color ideas in pop music, thereby offering shorthand for how the creation of rock & roll has refined itself in the last forty years. Indeed, with nothing but the most miniscule push from her tiny label, Cosentino's debut album with her band Best Coast entered the top forty. Unfortunately, these ingratiating, deightful songs backdrop some of the laziest, most anonymous vocals and juvenile lyrics I can recall.
Crazy for You comes throttling out of the gate with the in-most-ways-incredible "Boyfriend"; above a circus of gloriously backward-looking noises, Cosentino pulls out a perfect Ronnie Spector inflection (which is the most expressive her voice ever gets) as she announces her intentions to shove aside the other, skinnier girl with "the college degree." Elsewhere, she is adept at channeling circa-1963 Beach Boys ("Summer Mood") only with abrasive vocals that cross the unemotive intensity of Nico with the casual machismo of Joan Jett or Chrissie Hynde or Debbie Harry (sans irony); the classic echo-ridden Wall of Sound on "Our Deal"; the chunky, sensual, deceptively simple lurching of the best and most dramatic surf music on "I Want To," which builds to masterfully schlocky teenage symphony; "Honey" moves toward the tricky hooks and adventurous texture of the Barracudas or Pixies; and "Happy" is a semi-successful stab at crackhead Dion. If you are any kind of a '60s-phile, chances are you will find plenty to love here; the tracks like "When the Sun Don't Shine" that are actually simple to the point of stupid tend to be the exception, although the classic riff on "Bratty B" can't really compensate for the feeling that it's being presented by little teenage emo girls in a band formed specifically to sing about replacing some jerk ex-boyfriend's t-shirt.
So let me preface this by saying that this is exactly the kind of music I love; therefore, the extent to which I'm troubled by the words is a testament to how awful they are. Cosentino is receiving more attention than any female performer in recent indie-rock memory, and is doing so with songs that are, nearly without exception, about "boys." The supreme nature and immense complication of boys when they are in her life, the desperate yearning for boys when they're not, the pall that a lack of a boy casts over all other elements of life, and generally a horizon that goes no farther than boys and the many things they have to offer, beginning and not ending with the tuneful feedback-alongs they inspire. And pretty much, boys.
You might wonder how this is different from the majority of pop music; isn't it all about the quest to get into a romantic entanglement and the lamenting of the condition of said entanglements? Well, okay, here are a few choice sentiments, across songs that are really a half hour's worth of variations on a theme: "There's nothing worse than sitting all alone waiting by the phone" ("Boyfriend"); "Maybe I'm just crazy / Maybe I'm just crazy / Maybe I'm just crazy / Maybe I'm just crazy / Crazy for you, baby" ("Crazy for You"); "How you / How you / How you'd be home soon / How you [...] He was / He was nice and cute / But he / He wasn't you" ("The End"); "I wish my cat could talk [...] Nothing makes me happy / Not even TV and a bunch of weed" ("Goodbye"); "I want to talk / About my day / It really sucked" ("Bratty B"); "All I do is think about you / Ooh-ooh la-la-la-la" ("Each and Every Day"). And in the record's best song, actually a "bonus track" apparently, the incredibly persuasive girl-group ripoff "When I'm with You," she hates, hates, hates sleeping alone and remembers how her mom told her there'd be boys like you. Yikes. The lyrics consistently lack any irony or sense of enigma; there's nothing there beyond the explicit. No problem with naked emotion on this end, except there's naked emotion (assuming none of this is market-embracing fakery) and then there's naked emotion unfiltered through any lyricism and artistic restraint.
Still, is this any worse than the lyrics Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, the Shangri-Las, etc. were forced to sing? Probably not, but Cosentino is not Ronnie Spector or Darlene Love. She hasn't even a fraction of their vocal skill or nuance, that which would be required to elevate the banalities of vastly projected personal emotions to something trascendent, idiosyncratic, moving. If anything, her closest ancestor is Stephen Malkmus, who as a diehard Pavement fan I'm willing to call a (deliberately) lazy singer. Malkmus also wrote some of the most confoundingly brilliant, witty, surrealistic lyrics in rock history. He did not sing about how empty his bed felt without a girl -- a valid sentiment, but an entire album centered around it by Malkmus or virtually any man would strike me as impossibly creepy. But equal opportunity is my aim, for I think Consentino comes off as a fucking codependent creeper too.
Throughout Crazy for You, the creeper's voice floats loudly above everything else, to the point that it makes it impossible to ignore for the discerning among us who'd be happy with this album for its production and performances alone. The lyrics are too much to get past. I hate sleeping alone, too, and everyone has the inalienable right to that emotion at some time in their lives. Lord knows that a person's actual instability is more telling than a behind-the-scenes producer's interpretation of female insecurities, but freeing them of any artful abstraction perversely renders them difficult to relate to, however universal their crux may be. I loathe the widespread media discomfort with women who display lustiness, crushiness, sexuality the same way men are expected to. In Bringing Up Baby, a film hardly from the age of women's lib, Katharine Hepburn doggedly pursues (and thoroughly controls) Cary Grant -- not a real-life scenario, but as wonderful and appealing a fantasy as any male-centric sci-fi world of buxom ladies. Lovelorn feelings, emotional loss and neediness and insecurity at the loss or lack of a mate -- these things don't define us, hopefully, but they do chase most of us at one time or another.
And I love hearing them expressed eloquently in pop music. You know who does that? Lots of people, but one female performer who comes to mind who released an album in 2010 that is exceptional and didn't get a shred of the attention afforded Crazy for You is Josephine Olausson, lead singer and keyboardist of Sweden's tremendous Love Is All. Olausson is an avowed Best Coast fan, to be fair, but the difference between her detailed, impassioned "A Side in a Bed" ("I want a seat by a table [...] I want a place in somebody's head / I Want my head resting on a lap / I want dirty dishes for two [...] I want to be somebody's favorite") and Best Coast's "Boyfriend" ("One day I'll make him mine / And we'll be together all the time / We'll sit and watch the sun rise / And gaze into each other's eyes / And know that he knows / That he wants to be my boyfriend") is like the difference between an E.E. Cummings poem and a Facebook love note. Criminally, Olausson's words are much more difficult to hear, but it's OK because her singing has, you know, character. I'd so much rather the alienated young folks (and blog buzz) attached themselves to Love Is All, or Janelle Monáe, or Alice freaking Glass, or -- going back to the more established world, because why not? -- Joanna Newsom, or Leslie Feist, or Jenny Lewis, or Neko Case, or Cat Power, or etc etc etc etc etc. You can debate the merits of all of the above, fine, but you have to admit that none of them could be mistaken for a third-hand media-savvy creation like Avril Lavigne ("Don't pretend, I think you know / I'm damn precious / And hell yeah / I'm the motherfuckin' princess / I can tell you like me too / And you know I'm right"). The most generic manufacturing is sometimes easily mistaken for the nakedest, least crafted feeling, lest we forget.
As you've likely deduced, that "recommended" tag up there is against all of my better judgment, because honestly Cosentino is existing in the groove of my life here -- I connect so strongly with the music she's copying that I can't help but get a thrill from her aping and slight repositioning of it. She deserves accolades for her economy, too; the whole mess runs barely thirty minutes, and only one track (one of the best, too, "Honey") exceeds three. Besides, according to a comment on the songmeanings.net page for "Boyfriend," "i love this song not only because its really good but also because it explains how girls feel about their guy friends sometimes." How can I argue with that.