California girls (and gurls) and the retro scaffold-pop of Best Coast
MUSIC If "California Gurls" is the dirge of pop music, the arrival of Bethany Cosentino ought to make you consider calling off the funeral. That's not to say her music is pop, exactly. It has pop potential but it's not a "radio-ready" sound ... yet. Her debut album, made with Bobb Bruno under the moniker Best Coast, is rife with short, sweet hooks and infectious choruses untouched by excessive production and studio intervention.
The lo-fi, almost low-effort sensibility yields roughly-hewn, simple melodies as catchy as any summer anthem. Cosentino could easily be transformed into a pop princess if she was up for it. But I don't think she is. As per indie music's backward-gazing tendencies this year, Best Coast on its debut LP Crazy For You (Mexican Summer) builds the scaffold of a promising pop record.
Best Coast's pedigree of influences includes the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, and the Crystals, as well as more contemporary groups like Wavves (frontman Nathan Williams is her boyfriend) and Vivian Girls (drummer Ali Koehler joined the band post-Crazy).
On 13 tracks, Cosentino displays emotional candor and a half-assed style of playing akin to Liz Phair when she left cassette-land for 1993's Exile in Guyville. Here, Best Coast stages a response to 1960s beach pop, just as Phair responded to phallocentric rock music. This time, the homage isn't an attempt to redo and revise, but almost to idolize a certain vintage style. There's also a little bit of Hole — sans Courtney Love's analgesic rawness — in Cosentino's woozy, whiney vocals. Imagine Love doing a cover of "Leader of the Pack."
Crazy For You is as much a testament to laziness as it is a tribute to '60s girl bands. With lyrics like "I can't get myself off the couch/ Nothing makes me happy/ Not even TV or a bunch of weed," Best Coast's "Goodbye" makes a bid for broken heart song of the year. In a summer of looooong albums (like Joanna Newsom's three-disc Have One on Me, or more recently, Arcade Fire's The Suburbs ), it's refreshing to hear short songs — the longest track, "Honey," clocks in at three minutes and two seconds — that come and go without ever repeating a chorus for too long. In less than two minutes, "Bratty B" provides one of the album's sunniest and most memorable moments.
In a phone interview, Cosentino opens up about her humble beginnings with guitar. "I was probably in the seventh grade," she says, a time when she listened to Blink-182 and Green Day in her formative years of listening. "I started playing pop punk and power chords. I took lessons for a year or two but I didn't ever practice, so I didn't become too great of a guitar player."
In other words, she isn't a guitar virtuoso. That's where Bruno comes in. Cosentino doesn't always seem to know where she's going on Crazy For You, but she gets there with a little TLC. "I write the songs and send a demo version to Bobb and I'll say, 'Here's this song, here's the vibe I'm looking for,'" Cosentino explains. "Bobb has this way of making it sound the way I envision. He fills in the gaps and does what I can't do. I really only know how to play power chords. Bobb comes in with the surf-y aspects and does all the lead guitar solos, which I can do, but only on one string so they often don't sound as great as Bobb makes them sound."
Though Best Coast is a product of West Coast adoration, it wouldn't have happened if Cosentino hadn't moved to New York for college. But the journey east, where she spent one semester at the New School, took too far out of her element. "Obviously I would never have started this band had I stayed in L.A.," she says. "Leaving really changed me as a person," Her romanticized vision of New York — born from Seinfeld and Woody Allen movies — ushered her into a concrete love affair that was ultimately unrequited.
A song like Crazy For You's opening track "Boyfriend," with its pining lyrics that border on obsession, sounds like the work of someone desperate. But Cosentino denies this. "I don't write songs about boys because I'm needy. I'm in a relationship. I'm not a sad girl," she says. "I write about guys because it's something I'm influenced by. A lot of people have been saying, 'Oh she's so needy, she needs a boyfriend.' That's not it at all."
Like any rising celebrity, Cosentino of course has hobbies, and they often involve smoking weed. Or sometimes they involve deepening her Internet footprint. She maintains a Twitter account (www.twitter.com/bestycoastyy ) that is a curio of hilarious tangents plus a blog with Ali Koehler where they rate and discuss the showers in their hotels on tour.
Cosentino also has a Twitter account for her cat, Snacks, who modeled for the album cover of Crazy For You. She's loathe to dwell too much on Snacks in interviews. Still, it's part of the ever-growing Cosentino mythos. "I feel like my cat gets talked about in my interviews more than music," she says. "But I'm happy about that because he deserves it."
Best Coast is a testament to how bands are favored and, conversely, dampened by the Internet and the hype it creates. All the meme-momentum built up for Best Coast, dating back to its early demos, might not benefit the band in the long run, but it sure is fun for now.
Crazy For You arrives at a perfect time in music, since retro-bedroom rock is the style du jour. But Best Coast is like your summer romance. Once September hits and you've had your kicks, you'll be ready to say goodbye and end things in a peaceful way. Yet your old flame, since she's a little Crazy, might try and stick around longer than you'd like.
October 26, 9 p.m., $15
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF