With The Only Place, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino joins up with Fiona Apple/Kanye West producer Jon Brion for the purposes of broadening her sound. But pop polish does her work no favors; the result is a record far inferior to the modest pleasantries of her debut Crazy for You.
As an unabashed fan of the sound of lo-fi and its contemporary descendant bedroom-pop, I can’t help but be afflicted by a nagging sense of disappointment over its practitioners consistently bailing on the small of scale and the unsmooth of texture, heading instead for the obvious comforts and potential acceptance of bolder sonic normalcy.
Outside of the garage rock realm, where a defiant persistence in unkempt non-streamlining is often considered a virtue, it seems that musicians who chose to explore the glories of four-track fuzz and tape deck hiss are expected sooner rather than later to step into the chilly confines of a spacious studio and “go pro”.
These days of course (with the appropriate software) a person can go pro in the dank confines of their very own expertly decorated basement. And that’s really the point. Lo-fi, no-fi, bedroom-pop, shitgaze etc; none of it sounds that way by accident or due to a lack of resources.
And while some folks thought otherwise, this was also the case back in the dawn of the ‘90s when the term lo-fi really started gaining traction. Pavement, Sebadoh and Guided by Voices all arrived at their individual if conspiratorial early sounds through savvy calculation. And by 1996 all three had made the necessary adjustments to go pro.
2010’s Crazy for You, the debut long-player from Best Coast was a solid nugget of bedroom-pop. While far from perfect, it soundly delivered on the promise of their assorted early singles and presented Bethany Cosentino as a name to watch. But when it was announced that Best Coast’s follow-up LP was to be produced by Jon Brion, I couldn’t help but feel that familiar twinge of disappointment; here goes another defection out of the bedroom and into the zone of relative refinement.
To be fair, the increase in fidelity between Crazy for You and 2009’s double seven-inch Make You Mine was palpable, but it seemed like Cosentino had found a sweet spot and would hopefully stay there a while. No dice. But just because I suffered that twitch of disappointment over her choice of producer and decision to go large didn’t mean it was a foregone conclusion that I would be disappointed.
For in a non-lo-fi context, I was also a bit bummed way back when after learning that for her third record PJ Harvey had chosen Flood as a producer. If I didn’t think that matchup was a good fit, proof to the contrary was very much in the pudding of To Bring You My Love. Sadly, I can’t say the same for The Only Place. And the fault lies not with Brion, who served his role to the fullest and delivered what’s essentially a mainstream indie-pop record. It’s just not a very good one, and the problem ultimately lies in Cosentino’s songs.
But first let’s backtrack. Crazy for You, if a strong record, was far from a masterpiece. That’s not a putdown. Debut masterworks have a tendency to represent artists that burn bright but brief. The listener gets everything (or close to it) in one big wallop, and then it’s all over but the inevitable letdown. Crazy for You on the other hand felt like a natural starting point, a record that presented the real possibility of growth.
Sure, Cosentino basically sounded like Neko Case if she cared less (much less) for being an alt-country chanteuse and more (much more) for smoking grade A skunk on a canopy bed whist writing songs that referenced a ‘60s pop sound, and all without feeling indebted to any specific predecessor.
But certain tendencies were apparent; for one, the general insubstantiality of her lyrics placed her less as a disciple of B. Wilson and more in the tradition of ‘60s-exponants The Ramones. And the production of Crazy for You was very much a part of its success.
And in the divide between her tunes and the record’s production is where The Only Place’s weakness resides. A songwriting style that was well-served by echo, distance, and touches of fuzz is now shown to be seriously wanting. If Cosentino sounds more like Case than ever, the quality of her writing is nowhere close to that league, and if it seems like I’m damning her as being reliant on a bedroom-pop production gimmick to achieve a moderate level of success, that’s wrong.
For so much pop music is intrinsically tied to production for communicating its essence, from The Beach Boys’ Smile to Michael Jackson’s Thriller to Daniel Johnston’s Yip/Jump Music. And rockists will sneer, but again The Ramones; Craig Leon’s knob-work on that first album is absolutely crucial to why it’s such an important document. A move to the glossier and instead of incendiary “Beat on the Brat” would’ve just sounded silly.
Yes, the previous paragraph is concerned with brilliant records and Crazy for You is in comparison just a nice debut LP. But the concept is the same. It’s why the undeniably limited lyrical approach of that album’s “Our Deal” succeeds and the similar tactic of The Only Place’s “My Life” doesn’t. The former feels like someone crafting a swell if not particularly amazing little ditty, and the latter registers like someone under a spotlight attempting to stretch out an underdeveloped idea.
And stylistically Cosentino’s songwriting tends toward the middle of the road, leaving her better moments here (“Last Year”, “Dreaming My Life Away”) to wither amidst a batch of inferior material. To his credit, Brion really pulls out all the stops on the closer “Up All Night”, easily The Only Place’s most surprising moment. It’s a song strong enough in its root form that its lush expansion sounds truly complimentary.
But the majority of the album resonates like Cosentino fronting a sprightly if far from remarkable indie combo, and that’s not what Crazy for You sounded like at all. If it were possible to hear The Only Place’s songs through the sonic framework of its far superior forerunner, I’d surely be tempted to do so. And I don’t think Cosentino is anywhere near creatively spent, I just perceive her as having (hopefully temporarily) lost the plot of what made her music so interesting.
When Pavement, Sebadoh and Guided by Voices all went hi-fi (so to speak), all three proved up to the task. True, they were all bands, and in contrast Best Coast is Cosentino’s show (with help from multi-instrumentalist Bobb Bruno). But they also had great songs on their side, and again the lack of such is The Only Place’s unfortunate undoing. Its content might very likely improve by crackling out of a fuzzy transistor radio, but going to the trouble of testing that theory seems like a lot of unnecessary work when Crazy for You already achieves that synthesis.In trying to graduate to a bogus manifestation of the “big leagues”, Cosentino has only managed in amplifying her music’s limitations. But she’s still an artist to watch, and The Only Place might eventually be considered her sophomore slump, especially if she manages further development as a songwriter. Her easiest road would be to just relax, pack it up and get back to the bedroom.
After a decade’s absence The Sugarman 3 return with What the World Needs Now and the long break betrays no signs of rust. The groups’ best record since 2000’s Soul Donkey, it shows off their impressive skill and superb judgment, but strays not one inch outside their comfort zone.
While the musical term “funk” really became common nomenclature in the late-‘60s/early-‘70s, where it was used to describe a particularly tough (and new) strain of R&B/soul, it’s employment as an adjective from within the jazz realm spanned back a bit farther than that.
If the lingo can in fact be located at the mythological point of jazz music’s very conception via the legend of Buddy Bolden and the tune “Funky Butt” (aka “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”), the word funky as a musical adjective really dates to the 1950s where it was occasionally used to describe the especially earthy strains of often organ-led combos, though it wasn’t bound to any defined area of specificity; the great saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, playing pseudonymously due to contractual reasons on trumpeter Louis Smith’s 1958 Blue Note LP Here Comes Louis Smith was credited under the moniker “Buckshot Le Fonque”. Additionally, clarinetist Perry Robinson’s killer 1962 Savoy LP of inside-outside explorations was titled Funk Dumpling.
The organ based groups to which the term funky was so frequently attached came to be more commonly known as soul-jazz, and some of the classics of the sub-genre are Baby Face Willette’s Face To Face, Brother Jack McDuff’s The Honeydripper, Big John Patton’s Along Came John and Jimmy Smith’s Back at the Chicken Shack and The Sermon! By the second half of the ‘60s the style had become quite boldly commercial, blending with concurrent strains of R&B and even the infectious Afro-Latin blend known as boogaloo.
The title of the 1998 debut LP by The Sugarman 3, Sugar’s Boogaloo, made readily clear just what type of experience was to be had from inspecting its contents. Indeed, an aura of unadulterated funk would be one of the first qualities noted in cataloging the nature of its grooves. To expand, Neil Sugarman’s group, a core trio often augmented with other instrumentalists, specialized in a celebration of the period when certain soul-jazz practitioners attempted to throw overboard the very notion of jazz as a self-conscious “art-music”, instead embracing its potential as a vessel of crowd-pleasing, body-moving party action.
Not only did that inaugural effort contain as a general declaration of principles a cover of James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, but it also saw them contouring their approach to such chestnuts as Dale Hawkins’ “Suzy Q” and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman”. If the group’s second and third LPs, 2000’s Soul Donkey and 2002’s Pure Cane Sugar found them slowly moving closer to a less jazz-derived groove science ala Booker T or The Meters, they still threw in enough nods to the soul-jazz tradition to keep one remindful of that aspect of their background, e.g. a burning cover of Lou “Alligator Boogaloo” Donaldson’s “Turtle Walk” on Soul Donkey and showcases on both LPs for some assertive flute playing from multi-instrumentalist Sugarman.
Their new record is What the World Needs Now, and its title’s tip-off to the inclusion of a Burt Bacharach cover indicated the possibility that The Sugarman 3 were turning the tide back toward a more pronounced expression of their soul-jazz roots. And to an extent this possibility is realized. That titular instrumental reconfiguring (essentially a funkifying) of Bacharach’s pop warhorse is exactly the type of move many a late-‘60s soul-jazzer indulged without the slightest regret and much to the chagrin of jazz aficionados by the score. In fact, the fruits of that era’s funky-jazz scene lacked much in the way of critical standing until the ‘90’s acid-jazz movement located inspiration in its precedent and promoted a fair amount of reevaluation.
If the phenomenon of jazz musicians tackling Bacharach, The Beatles, Dylan etc is a complex one, it’s now all water under the bridge. Some observers stubbornly persist in ruing the fact that stately improvisers would soil themselves with contemporary pop covers instead of simply continuing on the undying (and by the late-‘60s, rather tired) course of interpreting standards (i.e. the contempo-pop of yesteryear) for the umpteenth time. However, most well-adjusted listeners in the present day acknowledge the tendency as just one more wrinkle in jazz music’s labyrinthine development.
And as such, it continues to be just one wrinkle in The Sugarman 3’s sound. What the World Needs Now features additional covers that reemphasize the group’s allegiance to the aforementioned MGs/Meters R&B axis, the unbeatable “But It’s Alright” by J.J. Jackson and the less typical Nuggets cornerstone “Dirty Water” via The Standells. Both tracks percolate with a relaxed assurance indicative of the group’s instrumental prowess; that is, the unfussy blend of chops and good taste in execution that’s helped make the Daptone enterprise (which Sugarman co-founded with Gabriel Roth) a go-to concern for discerning mavens of R&B classique.
This isn’t to say that What the World Needs Now doesn’t hold in its grooves a few surprises. For instance, the use of piano on “Witches Boogaloo” very much recalls “The In Crowd” by Ramsey Lewis, which along with Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and Les McCann and Eddie Harris’ “Compared to What” forms a massive trifecta of ‘60s non-crap jazz crossovers.
But other moments on the LP toe the funky line in the manner more in keeping with their last two albums. “Your Friendly Neighborhood Sugarman” hits a spot quite reminiscent of prime Junior Walker. And if “Got to Get Back to My Baby” registers like a scaled down version of fellow Daptone artists Budos Band, that’s basically due to the tune having sprung from the pen of that group’s bassist Daniel Foder.
I’m also pleased that the amount of vocals has been dialed back from that of Pure Cane Sugar. While I enjoy Lee Fields very much, for some reason his take on “Shot Down” by garage monsters The Sonics just didn’t resonate with me. And his was my favorite vocal from the previous LP. The Sugarman 3 are foremost an instrumental unit; they work best with only occasional accents of the human voice.
With all this considered, The group’s intense and finely tuned amalgamation of influences can’t help but leave a lingering aftertaste, specifically that the outfit is an exemplary style synthesis lacking a sense of personality tangibly their own beyond their status as ultra-cool kings of the throwback, of course. And there’s really not a thing wrong with that.
However, it does separate them rather substantially from their influences, musicians that were largely operating in territory without a net. This goes both for the Booker T side of the group’s sound as well as the Jimmy Smith portion. And it also differentiates them from the most laudable examples of the jazz/pop dialogue both then (Dylan’s “My Back Pages” from The Keith Jarrett Trio’s Somewhere Before from 1968) or now (The Vijay Iyer Trio’s take on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” from this year’s Accelerando).
So The Sugarman 3 is undeniably great at what they do, but ultimately what they do doesn’t fall outside of an already very well defined context. They are exceptionally worthy distillers of a tradition, not estimable groundbreakers like Jarrett (or Morgan or McCann, for that matter) or valuable extenders like Iyer.In the end, what makes the music of Neil Sugarman’s group so worthwhile is the collective level of sincerity necessary to pull off the whole endeavor. When listening to What the World Needs Now it becomes blatantly obvious just how much the whole band loves what they are doing, so much in fact that I’m sure they would continue to do it whether anyone else was listening or not.