Best Coast / Tennis / Frankie Rose – Review

16 Jun

Usualy Lo-fi recordings are born out of necessity rather than choice, but it being lo-fi has its benefits. It’s anti-mainstream and therefore has instant cool. Lo-fi blurs or distorts the sound which hides the singer or musician’s flaws – more to the point, flaws are part of the appeal of Lo-fi. It’s a production style that’s anti-perfection. It extenuates the rough edges and doesn’t iron them out. Many bands start off recording on the cheap for practical reasons, but they quickly find that the style suits their music. What to do when they suddenly have the money, support and equipment to record properly is a question that many groups have struggled to answer? Stick or twist?

There is no straight answer; In the recent past bands have gone down each route and some have successfully made the transition from lo-fi to hi-fi (Washed Out spring to mind), some have been less successful (The Strokes) whilst some have stuck firmly to their guns (The Drums). Best Coast, Tennis and Frankie Rose started off making distinctly and notoriously ‘Lo-fi’ music and each act has answered the question of whether to clean up for album number two with varying degrees of success.

BEST COAST have gone the full hog and recorded ‘The Only Place’ in a Lush, expensive LA studio. If you stretch your mind back to the band’s earliest releases you’ll remember that songs like ‘The Sun Was High and So Was I’ and ‘Make You Mine’ were trashy and cheap but dripping with raw personality. On their excellent debut ‘Crazy For You’ they cleaned up their act a fair bit but retained enough of the grime to stop their Alternative fanbase shouting ‘Sell Outs!’ However, on second album ‘The Only Place’ this is exactly what the fans have started chanting, and that has a lot to do with the album’s clean sound.

‘The Only Place’ was produced by the world-renowned John Brion and it was recorded in Capital Studios, famously the musical home of  Phil Spector and The Beach Boys. There is Zero fuzz, feedback and distortion here, it’s all clean lines and immaculately produced pop songs, which, it turns out, is a problem for some people. Negative reviews, written by people who praised the debut, are in no way justified. So Pitchfork gave the debut 8.4 and the new album 6.2? But why? Their reasoning that the ‘messy production bumped the lazy lyrics and rote melodies around just enough’ last time around simply doesn’t make sense. Are they saying that bad production actually made what they thought were average songs good? Best Coast have never had the best lyrics, and their melodies are slightly predictable, but I don’t see how sloppy production redeems those features.

Indeed, the qualities that Pitchfork praised two years ago, including Beth’s singing voice her sunny hooks, sound even better on album number two and in my opinion the polished production shines attention on these improvements. The title track in particular has a lovely jangly sound that is a vast improvement on the fuzzy guitar work of the debut. Songs like ‘No One Like You’ and ‘Up All Night’ also make use of a broader palette, featuring strings and impressive basslines. On ‘Crazy For You’ it sounded like Beth had purposefully restrained from adding unnecessary instrumentation, but whilst that worked effectively on her strongest material, the songs that couldn’t rely on great melodies felt lacklustre. Here though the weaker songs (and there are a lot more on this album) have elements that keep you interested even when the melody or lyrics are lacking – whether it’s the guitar interplay, the string arrangements or maybe something a bit kookier, the band are no longer as reliant on catchy hooks to get them through.

Whilst ‘The Only Place’ is masterfully recorded, all things considered it isn’t an improvement on ‘Crazy For You’, and that’s because the songs just aren’t as good. Also, whilst there’s progression here in terms of lyrics there isn’t enough progression to truly satisfy. The songs are more confessional but there’s still a lack of personality, which is strange considering how much personality Beth brings to her performances and interviews. This is the one area where the improved production doesn’t work to the group’s favour, as you can now here every dodgy syllable clearly, whereas before they would have been covered by the sludgy sound. There is still a level of predictability to the lyrics, you can see the rhymes coming a mile off, and unfortunately this is true of the chord progressions and melodies as well. At least three songs here use the same basic chord progression as the song’s basis and in all three tuness the melodies and thematic concerns are similar as well. If Best Coast push themselves harder on album number three then they have potential to make a truly classic album, but whilst ‘The Only Place is an improvement on ‘Crazy For You’ in many respects, it’s still obvious Best Coast (typical stoners as they are) are being a bit too lazy and laid back at the moment.

(7/10)

Unlike Best Coast, TENNIS have decided to stick to their lo-fi guns – a brave decision considering that, unlike Best Coast, the production values of their debut were criticised more than they were praised. The detractors (I was one of them) said that the home recording style didn’t play to singer’s Alaina Moore’s biggest strength, i.e her voice. It’s all very well having an average vocalists singing into a rubbish mike but when you hear a singer with an expressive, not to mention impressive, range limit herself, well,  its frustrating. If It’s purely financial restrictions that are the problem (which is a possibility) then that’s fair enough, but when Alaina hits high notes here, or just gets a little loud, the sound becomes distorted and tinny.

But what about the music? If you remember, Tennis’ debut album was all about the duo’s Atlantic sailing adventure, and it was the musical equivalent of a postcard sent by your honeymooning neighbours. On ‘Young and Old’ they’ve returned back to the mainland and they’re back to their boring day jobs – at least that’s how it sounds. It’s evident in the comparative lack of colour and joy in the songs which are sadly un-memorable. This is a nice album that (production aside) rarely trips up, but nothing on here lives up to the promise of the group’s early singles. ‘It all feels the same’ gets the record off to a great start but slowly things start breaking down, and on the second half of the record all the songs mesh together into one fairly enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable, jumble. The melodies are still pretty and nostalgic, the lyrics are still lover lorn and relatable and the jingly-jangly guitar playing still sounds great, but coming so soon after the debut, this is a case of too much too soon.

(5/10)

Then we have FRANKIE ROSE, who has always been the bit part player of the lo-fi scene. Drummer for Vivan Girls and then leader of Frankie Rose and the Outs, her self-titled debut album was very distorted and intermittently interesting. I’ve forgotten most of the songs excpet for one – the beautiful  ‘Little Brown Haired Girls’, which has stuck out in my memory. That track alone made me listen to her second effort ‘interstellar’ and unfortunately there is nothing on here that comes close to matching the brilliance of that song. Rather than drill the same mine of punk-pop that was quite forgettable on the debut, Rose has now gone down the dream pop route. ‘Intersteller’ is heavily indebted to ‘Disintegration’ era Cure, and one song ever features an identical beat to ‘Close to Me’; the synths are floaty, the guitars are soaked in reverb, the basslines are dark – you get the idea. Honestly, it’s hard to separate the music from the influences and at the end of the day there isn’t anything that is good enough or different enough on ‘Intersteller’ to warrant a recommendation. Frankie Rose is certainly a talent, she just has to choose a path that hasn’t been trodden relentlessly before.

4.5/10

 

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