Based solely on material from Best Coast’s debut album Crazy for You, we learned four main things about frontwoman Bethany Cosentino: She likes boys (most specifically, Nathan Williams of Wavves), California, weed, and cats. It was remarkably easy to boil her down to those characteristics, and she spent quite a bit of time touring and doing interviews in an effort to break free from those labels. Delving deeper into her psyche via such interviews and her strikingly entertaining Twitter feed, we’ve learned a bit more about her, and it all sets us up quite nicely for Best Coast’s sophmore record The Only Place. First and foremost, Cosentino has said many times that this second album is more “emo” and “pop-punk” than the band’s debut. If you’ve been keeping a careful eye on what Best Coast has been up to the last couple years, perhaps you saw one of their shows where they covered Blink 182. Such moments give you a pretty good idea where some of the band’s sonic inspiration stems from. They’ve given up the lo-fi grunge of the first album and hired producer Jon Brion to add plenty of polish and space. In some respects a bit of the mystery is lost by removing the instrumental layers of fuzz generated by Bobb Bruno’s excellent guitar work. Such purposeful flaws only heightened Best Coast’s overall aesthetic as a crew of plainspoken slackers that were just like us. With everything on The Only Place coming off as pristine, it creates a new imperative that they have to take themselves much more seriously and professionally. The good news is that the melodies seem to take that thought to heart, as the guitars jangle, the vocals soar, and the hooks grab you by the ears and won’t let go. Their sonic palette has expanded a bit too, at least enough to incorporate light blushes of alt-country. It would have worked even better had they thrown in at least a little slide guitar or fiddle, but songs like “My Life”, “No One Like You” and “Dreaming My Life Away” feel like they’re channeling Neko Case in overall tone anyways. That’s probably Cosentino’s hope, though she’d be even more ecstatic to generate comparisons to her role model and personal hero, Stevie Nicks. She comes strikingly close on “Do You Still Love Me Like You Used To”, particularly on the multi-harmonized chorus, however that song and others are cursed with one major flaw: the lyrics. If you’re going to clean up your sound and strive for something more professional, you’ve got to back away at least a little bit from lines like, “The sun was high/and so was I” or “You say that/we’re just friends/but I want this/til the end”. Cosentino has changed her writing style a bit, moving away from the lackadaisical summer fun themes and towards the more personal and emotional. Most of the songs on The Only Place feel like pages pulled from a diary, but from a girl in her early teens and not her mid-twenties. Remarks such as, “My mom was right/I don’t wanna die/I wanna live my life,” on “My Life” are simple to a fault. The opening title track keeps the never ending cycle of songs about California going, and like a pseudo-cousin to Katy Perry’s “California Girls”, features lines like, “We’ve got the ocean/Got the babes/Got the sun/We’ve got the waves.” Don’t be shocked if you hear that eyeroll-worthy beast in a commercial soon, probably for the State of California Tourism Board. Why Cosentino’s lyrics are so poorly written has less to do with how uncomplicated they are and more to do with sheer predictability. Nine times out of ten you can guess what the line-ending rhyme is going to be, and while it may be easier to sing along as a result, that sort of blandness really isn’t helping anyone. A little more energy or even some experimentation in the songs would have offset the lyrical damage a bit, but unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of that to be found on The Only Place. If Best Coast really is planning to continue to grow into a full-fledged, professional band, they’ve still got some work left to do. The majority of that falls straight on Cosentino, who might want to spend just a little less time messing around on Twitter and a little more time trying to avoid becoming a cliche.
At this point, I’m pretty sure the lo-fi “revival” is dead. It introduced us to a whole new host of bands a couple years back, everyone from Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls to Wavves and Times New Viking, and then naturally segued into the “glo-fi” electronica movement. Now even glo-fi is essentially done too, as we wait for the next big sound to strike. The one lesson learned from all these trends is that some bands get left in the dust when the hype cycle changes, while others adapt and remain within the realm of relevancy. To put it another way, the good bands are smart enough to survive. For most, the recipe for continued success is simple: add fidelity. Glo-fi bands like Washed Out and Toro y Moi have upgraded to a much cleaner sound and their latest records have improved on what was already there. The same can be said for lo-fi groups like the Smith Westerns and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. It is from this mold that Male Bonding have taken their cue with their sophmore effort “Endless Now”. Their debut “Nothing Hurts” was ear-catching lo-fi punk rock, but now thanks to some sonic upgrades, the Brits are operating on a far cleaner level, to the point where their sound is best described as pop-punk.
By saying that “Endless Now” is a pop-punk record, a certain stigma almost automatically becomes attached to it. The most popular pop-punk bands of the last several years may enter your mind, everyone from All American Rejects to Blink 182 and Fall Out Boy fall underneath that umbrella. It’s worth noting that you could also call bands like The Jam and Teenage Fanclub pop-punk as well, even if there’s a clear difference between what they’re doing and what other more popular bands of the genre are doing. The point is, Male Bonding wind up on the smarter, more indie side of this genre fence, and it’s not simply because they haven’t had a worldwide hit single (yet). The basic parts – quick and loud electric guitars blasting out power chords mixed with supremely catchy hooks – remain the same, but the difference lies in approach. The guys in Male Bonding are no doubt a lot of fun, but their music isn’t always on the brightest of topics. The murky, spatial cover of “Endless Now” most definitely suggests something far less than upbeat is contained within, and it’s not lying in the least. The last album “Nothing Hurts” was ultimately about being beaten to a pulp both emotionally and physically but ultimately coming out the other side a hardened shell of a person – surviving but still wrecked. This new record continues a similar form of torture, only this time you can understand the lyrics better and the melodies are occasionally exploiting more bouncy, fun energy rather than merely grinding guitars.
The most fascinating artifact on this album has to be first single “Bones”, which in full album form is nearly twice as long as any other track on the record. For 6.5 minutes you’re buried beneath chord after chord, like waves crashing down on top of you in rapid succession. Considering the in-and-out 3 minutes much of the rest of the album appears to push, this is the one moment where you can clearly hear the band attempting something extreme and largely making it work. Similar things can be said about “The Saddle”, the shortest track on the album, save for the last 30 second “Untitled” epilogue. After spending so much of the record bouncing from chord to chord and barely taking a moment to breathe, “The Saddle” goes softer, quieter and acoustic. There’s even a small bit of piano in there to bring some added warmth to the song. Outside of those clear standout moments, there’s not a whole lot else that blatantly draws attention to itself. That doesn’t mean it’s plain or bad, it’s just far more direct and cohesive in approach. You can get “Tame the Sun” trapped in your head for a week and then on your 10th listen through “Channeling Your Fears” will be the new track du jour. That’s a big part of what makes this band and this genre of music quite a bit of fun to listen to when done properly.
If “Endless Now” is lacking in anything, it’s probably surprises. On “Nothing Hurts”, there were tempo and stylistic shifts that were partly unrest from the band but they were also unexpected. There was a certain thrill not knowing exactly what angle they were going to take on the very next track. This new streamlined approach doesn’t leave room for such messing about, so that tension gets diffused. But on the big plus side, the much sharper sound brings with it that shiny pop edge that was all too often buried beneath layers of poor quality equipment. Producer John Agnello does a fantastic job ensuring that Male Bonding sound better overall, but never reach that squeaky clean point where it becomes a betrayal of their intentions. “Endless Now” has the distinct disadvantage of arriving with pre-formed expectations and anticipation thanks to how incredible “Nothing Hurts” really was. In fact, some of the more die-hard fans of the band may be disappointed that the guys have shaved off their musical beards and thrown on some business suits. What Male Bonding lose in early devotees as a result of this album they’ll likely make up at least twofold courtesy of their easier accessibility. It’s not selling out, it’s the rare art of fighting to remain relevant.