Deconstructing: Best Coast And “It All Sounds The Same”
Best Coast’s new EP Fade Away came out yesterday. It sounds… like Best Coast. There are distorted guitars, sugary girl-group vocals, simple major-key chord progressions, jaunty tempos, arching melodies, and plainspoken lyrics about romance, sunshine, and figuring out life. You wonder if she is singing about Wavves. You imagine what the song sounded like before Bobb got his hands on it. You wish you were hanging out with her and Bobb and Wavves at some oceanside bar and drinking a cocktail with an umbrella in it. You tap your foot. You dance around in your desk chair a little bit. For three and four minutes at a time, life is good.
Or maybe life becomes excruciating in those interims — so excruciating that you feel compelled to let the whole world know. So you spout off some spiteful words on the internet — maybe something like this: “Best Coast LP3: let’s see how many times Bethany Cosentino can re-write the same three songs that constitute the entirety of Best Coast’s catalogue.” Or this: “Why do your lyrics invariably read like the asinine diary entries of an 8 year old?” Or this: “At this point, I would rate the cat much higher than the band.” Judging from the comments on the interview with Cosentino we published last week, it seems not everyone feels as fondly as I do about basking in Best Coast’s glow.
The most prominent critique I’ve noticed against the band as its catalog has accumulated is that Cosentino is repeating herself to the point of plagiarism — that her music all sounds the same. I don’t dispute that Best Coast is formulaic; you can read the recipe up in my first paragraph. (For best results, bake all day at 85 degrees fahrenheit in the California sun, then cool overnight in the ocean breeze.) But I do want to combat the notion that “formulaic” equals “bad” as long as the formula is potent.
That truism, “It all sounds the same,” often pops up when people are rejecting entire genres — clueless parents claiming they can’t tell the difference between Kendrick Lamar and Waka Flocka Flame, or flaming rockists confusing Katy Perry with Lady Gaga, or self-styled tough guys lumping Death Cab For Cutie together with Vampire Weekend. What it usually means in that context is “I don’t like this, and I’m not willing to put in the time to gain a nuanced understanding of it.” Of course there are some similarities and some recurring patterns, otherwise the entire concept of genre would be rendered meaningless. Whereas anyone with a passing knowledge of those styles can rattle off plentiful distinctions between those acts, it’s hard to make out the details from afar. The same goes with bourbon or romantic comedies: The subtle differences start to appear when you put forth the effort to become a connoisseur.
Lobbing the “It all sounds the same” argument at an entire genre often says more about you than the music you’re dismissing. I’m as guilty of this as anybody; as I noted over the summer, all those subgenre lines in metal and club music blur together for me to this day. Similarly, although I look forward to a future in which I can annoy friends at bars by sketching out the differences between Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton on a napkin, that day has yet to dawn. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any differences, it means I can’t perceive the differences because I haven’t cultivated an ear for them.
Does the same rule apply when you zoom in from the genre level to the artist level? More or less. Let’s turn again to Best Coast: Fade Away is instantly recognizable as Cosentino’s work. I could argue, as Carrie Battan eloquently explained in her review Monday, that this release actually does represent evolution for Best Coast, that songs like “Fear Of My Identity” and “Who Have I Become,” simplistic and familiar though they may be, reflect an artist wrestling thoughtfully with the big questions of growing up (“The rain it falls down/ Down onto the ground” notwithstanding). But at the core, it’s more of the same. Sonically, thematically, no matter what lens you examine it through, it fits the mold we’ve come to expect from Best Coast.
And that’s why I love Fade Away: I love Best Coast. The same preternatural charm and melodic touch that hooked me at “When I’m With You” courses through these latest songs. Yeah, it kind of does all sound the same, but I’m getting more of something I already know I like. Conversely, I find the repetitiveness of bands like Mumford & Sons or those constant punching bags Nickelback to be a downer because I’m getting more of something I dislike. It’s not the copying that bothers me, it’s what’s being copied. I could make the same case in favor of Real Estate or Cut Copy or the National — actually, I did make just such a case for the National. Even the Best Coast haters can probably find some artist in their music library that works with a consistent template. There’s room in this world for musicians like that — just ask anyone with a Ramones T-shirt.
Thanks to the media’s obsession with narrative, we’ve been conditioned to believe that an artist is only valuable if she keeps pushing her art in radical new directions and that settling into predictable molds is a sign of creative death. And as with most conventional wisdom, that’s partially true. I’d be a fool to advocate for a musical landscape where everybody picks one sound and sticks to it. Our world would be far poorer if Dylan had continued to crank out boilerplate folk songs, if Radiohead had stayed loyal to guitars, if Kanye had been content to keep pitching up soul samples. I mean, shit, I think most of us can agree it’s a good thing the Beatles tried out some new ideas from time to time. As someone who still swears by Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, I’m certainly glad Jeff Tweedy indulged his restless muse rather than play to the conservative side of his fan base. (And God knows alt-country fans can be even more musically conservative than their mainstream counterparts.) Last year, I praised Sufjan Stevens for refusing to be boxed in creatively by the expectations of both the Christian and indie music worlds; I’m not campaigning for artistic stasis here.
But as I explained in that Sufjan essay, constantly ripping up the playbook can drain some of the enjoyment out of music too. We need patterns to make sense of the world. There is comfort in routine, and there is value in comfort. There is also the risk that your bold experimentation will turn out to be a bunch of bullshit. Plenty of bands would have been better off remaking their debut album into infinity, even if they run the risk of fielding the kind of accusations of artistic cannibalism Best Coast is facing from some corners. Emerging fully formed is a lose-lose situation, really: You’re going to piss somebody off whether you opt to change or to stick with what works. Ian Cohen tackled the concept intriguingly last week at Grantland in the context of Sleigh Bells, a duo that struck like lightning with debut Treats but, also like lightning, had nowhere to go but down:
But as with other debuts from similarly “this is just what we needed” acts like the Strokes, Interpol, Andrew W.K., and the xx, Treats wasn’t a perfect album, but rather a perfection of an aesthetic, to the point that a second album instantly threatens to be redundant. Which is exactly what happened on last year’s Reign Of Terror, which, like Room On Fire, Antics, The Wolf, and Coexist, gave you slightly polished “more of the same” — enough to hold you over, but not enough to make you think these guys were going to somehow improve on the formula.
To be sure, the question of whether to evolve or to stick with a formula that works is a crapshoot. As in sports, no one wants to peak as a rookie, but it’s better to become a dependable role-player with a long career than to squander your career awkwardly attempting to take on tasks that don’t fit your skill set. Some bands just aren’t built to experiment, and that’s OK. To pluck from Cohen’s examples, Jamie xx’s adventurous production work outside the band is evidence enough for me that an experimental xx record would be rewarding. On the other hand, I would have been much happier with five or six formulaic Strokes records that sound like Is This It and Room On Fire than the discography they actually gave us, one littered with risks that didn’t pay off. Rather than a new-and-improved version of themselves, they would have been better off just being themselves.
Like the Strokes, Best Coast’s basic guitar-pop is almost certainly not fit for a major overhaul. Fortunately, Cosentino seems to understand that. She is not going out of her way to become something she’s not. Unlike, say, peak-era Radiohead, she’s not actively subverting her instincts for fear of repeating herself. She is not hellbent on challenging herself and her listeners. She is comfortable being comfort food, and her continued mining of her signature sound most certainly comforts me. Listening to Fade Away feels like catching up with a good friend. As ever, it transports me to that hypothetical seaside gathering out West. And while I don’t want to settle down there, I’m happy to keep visiting from time to time as long as Best Coast will have me.