Back in 2010, Bethany Cosentino demonstrated that even as a member of the aw-shucks indie rock club, it was possible to become a near-cultural icon with just a few addictive songs, some raw personality, and an active Twitter feed. As Best Coast, her band, grew in popularity, the world found at least as much of a celebrity in Cosentino as a musical artist. Some corners of the Internet became obsessed, churning out acres of type about her boyfriend (Nathan, of the slackery guitar band Wavves), her cat (Snacks, with 10,000 Twitter followers), and the now-25-year-old's post-millennial charm: She was cute, stoned, a little self-obsessed, and radically accessible via Twitter and constant online interviews. Covered (and savaged) by blogs like Hipster Runoff the way a Hollywood star would be offered up in a supermarket rag, Cosentino ascended to indie-pop ubiquity. She became a star — like a lesser-known Zooey Deschanel, only way cooler; a Taylor Swift for the you-know-whats to gossip over.
Best Coast's early, bedroom-recorded singles were quick doses of girl-group pop scraped together with dim guitars and indifferent drums. Over two alternating chords, Cosentino would drawl a few words (like, say, "I want you so much"), follow them with a few ooohs or aahhs, then sing the sequence over again. It worked unfeasibly well. The languid "Make You Mine" lasts one minute and 44 seconds, and it's the kind of thing you want to play over and over, because you'll be hearing it in your head anyway.
But Best Coast's first full album, Crazy for You — recorded by Cosentino and her partner in the band, 39-year-old guitarist, bassist, and drummer, Bobb Bruno — wore the magic of their formula down to its last threads. Over 12 songs (and one bonus track), the dumbfounding repetition and diary-fresh lyrics feel seductive, then boring, and finally aggravating. There are moments of lucid, plainspoken pop, and plenty of hooks. But after too many lines like "Nothing makes me happy, not even TV or a bunch of weed," the album starts to feel more like a Facebook status update than a work of pop art. Which may explain why it's the most popular thing the band's label, Mexican Summer, has ever sold.
Best Coast's second album, The Only Place, arrives this week, with Cosentino in a strikingly different place: The online snark gallery may be after her for designing a clothing line with Urban Outfitters (something Kim Gordon, of all people, did first), but she professes not to read that stuff anymore. People grow, and in 2012, Cosentino comes off both more confident and more dedicated than she did as that suddenly famous stoned chick who really missed her boyfriend.
The new record is a startling improvement. Instead of Crazy for You's claustrophobic dimensions, The Only Place sounds expansive and lush, thanks to the work of big-name producer Jon Brion. The first thing you notice about Cosentino now is her voice, which is surprisingly powerful and rich, almost Neko Case-like at its best moments. You feel slighted that she's let so many past lines tumble uneventfully out of her mouth without the warm projection she apparently possesses. Complementing the vocals is a broadened (and immaculately recorded) sonic palette that includes acoustic guitars, flutes, strings, and bass — colors that Crazy for You longed for.
The most interesting thing on The Only Place is the person Cosentino has become. Several of the best songs aim squarely, and critically, at the singer herself: "Used to wake up in the morning and reach for that bottle or glass, but I don't do that anymore, kicked my habits out the front door," she sings on the gloomy, shuffling "Last Year." Her shopping and TV habits — formerly a regular subject of her Twitter feed — also face an adult's scorn. "I just keep spending my money, one day it will be gone, and then I'll have to write another song," she bleats disdainfully. If you don't quite feel sorry for her, you still appreciate the candor.
Cosentino hasn't quite grown into a poet, though. Where great songwriters invent their own expressions, Cosentino still assembles her lyrics out of drab, everyday speech and bottom-drawer clichés: "Turn around and no one's there/ Don't know why I even care/ Moods they swing, the seasons change/ Is it you or am I to blame," she offers on "Why I Cry." This can be annoyingly literal, especially when peers of the same generation (like, say, Taylor Swift) can tell a more evocative story with a single lyrical image.
But then, one never has to wonder what Cosentino is singing about or what she's trying to say: The Only Place is relentlessly easygoing, breezing by in 35 summery minutes. The album's simplicity never feels as cheap as it did on Crazy for You, but, similar to her debut, Cosentino also never switches subjects. Even on the title track, when she's ostensibly praising California, she's really singing about herself: "Why would you live anywhere else?" she asks. "This is the only place for me."
Cosentino has managed a difficult trick: getting better as she gets bigger, but still singing small-scale truths more like social-media chatter than coherent statements. Rather than seem narcissistic, though, she can make you love hearing her talk about herself, make you long for that window into her mind. The adorers and detractors don't need to babble anymore about her cat or her shopping habits. Best Coast is going to gets lots of attention for The Only Place, and this time, the music has earned it.