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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011

Best Coast, Under a Microscope

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“Vocals have always been my strong point: The one thing I feel the most confident in is singing,” says Bethany Cosentino, frontwoman of the Los Angeles-based surf-pop band Best Coast, whose sweet-n-tough vocals have been perfected through years of singing. “I’ve been singing since I was a kid, so it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life.”

Although Cosentino is usually seen with a guitar in hand with Best Coast, she describes her playing as merely dutiful. When queried about her instrument skills, she bluntly brushes off the six-strings and focuses on her vocal cords.

“My main instrument is my voice,” she states firmly. “I don’t really consider myself to be a very good guitar player, even. I do what I can and I know how to do what I have to do … I’m not like Eric Clapton or anything.”

Clapton, definitely not, but Cosentino isn’t all thumbs, either. She manages to get by with the simple and pedaled-up chords she does lay down, putting the focus on the bare-bones structure of her music, relaying relationship woes and wishes amid a backdrop of heavy distortion and time-keeper percussion, like little noise missives of her ’90s rock influences (Nirvana and Slowdive) and her ’50s/’60s girl-group vocal influences (Lesley Gore and Dusty Springfield).

“When I first started playing guitar, I was playing a Danelectro,” Cosentino says. “It was a guitar my dad had given to me and it wasn’t the greatest guitar, but I really liked it because of how little it was and it was super-light and they have a very vintage-y kind of look.

“[Now] I play a Fender Mustang and my backup guitar is a Fender Strat—it’s pretty crappy, but it does the job,” she adds, laughing. “What I’m playing on guitar isn’t super-intricate, so going for a guitar for me is sadly based on the look of the guitar. ‘Will it look good onstage?’ Because I’ll see something and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good-looking guitar … does it sound good with distortion on it? Cool, let me get it.’”

Distortion-junkie Cosentino may be, Best Coast isn’t accordingly bogged down by too much swirling sound. Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno picks out some pretty sweet melodies, perfect for that sun-baked, warm-breeze-laden sound reminiscent of afternoons spent on that ‘best coast’ for which Cosentino waxes poetic. The band’s first full-length, Crazy for You, is full of the balance and depth of chugging, fuzzed-out backing guitars and wistfully reverbed melodies, swooning heart-droppers of oohs and whoas, and Cosentino’s harmony-layered voice singing happy-doldrums lines such as, “And nothing makes me happy/ Not even TV or a bunch of weed/ Every time you leave this house/ Everything falls apart.”

The straightforwardness of those lyrics can be a tripping point for some, yet many dig them for the relatability factor. Typical/classic girl-group purists need not apply, and Cosentino seems fine with this. “I don’t go into extreme detail about what my songs are about because I think it’s pretty obvious what they’re about,” she says. “I don’t even think about what I’m writing; I just write.”

She cites both girl groups and atypical mainstream pop artists as influences, with Stevie Nicks, Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Jenny Lewis among the admired.

In general, Cosentino doesn’t pay much mind to the status-quo indie-rock mind-set or what the press writes about her—“When you’re under a microscope, people are always going to have some sort of opinion about you”—and she feels the same way about fans who focus on her semi-famous cat, Snacks, her semi-famous boyfriend, Nathan Williams of Wavves, and her not-so-semi-famous obsession with getting high.

Reflecting on the oddity that the spotlight sometimes brings, Cosentino says, “There are always a couple weirdos, but for the most part everybody’s just friendly and excited to meet you … We’ve definitely come across some freaks on our tour, but most of the fans I’ve met are really nice.

“Some people are really zany and some people are shy and nervous; we’ve never had to punch anybody, so that’s a good thing,” she continues, laughing. “I’m not a puncher. I don’t even know how to punch properly. I’d probably break my hand if I punched somebody.”

Best Coast performs with Wavves and No Joy at Turner Hall Ballroom on Thursday, Feb. 10, at 8 p.m.