Music » Music Essay

The well-styled surface of well-selling indie rock, starring Best Coast and Sleigh Bells

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In May, a former fashion writer named Bethany Cosentino launched a small clothing line through the lifestyle emporium Urban Outfitters. The five pieces were stylized updates on clothes that, a few years ago, might have been easiest to find in attics and, subsequently, very fine vintage clothing shops—a square-chested, thick-strapped tank; a little black dress; a high-waisted skirt; a purple romper; and a trimmed take on the sheer black cape Stevie Nicks often wore on stage. Certainly not revelatory and certainly not hideous, Cosentino's line drew little fashion-world fanfare or backlash. "This skirt is really cute," one customer aptly said of one Cosentino piece. "VERY well cut."

And that was OK, because the sixth piece in Cosentino's line—a piece of white vinyl called The Only Place, for $20.98—offered the real hook, anyway. The second album by Cosentino's simplistic garage-rock, sunshine-pop duo Best Coast, who play Friday at Cat's Cradle, The Only Place is one of the year's most anticipated records, meaning the fashion line was but a buy-in for a musician with other interests who made music that Urban Outfitters customers likely thought was cool.

But The Only Place is much less interesting than the clothes it accompanies; in fact, it's terrible. A likable surface without a detectable heart, The Only Place is symptomatic of a growing tendency for independent bands to serve more as lifestyle soundtracks than actual artistic endeavors. Stuck in a clearance bin of several other emerging acts, Cosentino's music is an Instagram filter for real life—distorting the colors and reshaping the frame so that someone might "like" something that's ultimately very ordinary.

In 2009, Cosentino emerged as Best Coast with a slew of noisy singles about being stoned and being in love. She had haphazardly recorded lazy little songs about both situations. Her 2010 debut, Crazy for You, stretched that aesthetic across an entire LP, not only causing Cosentino to join a rising tide of sonically similar acts (including her boyfriend's band, Wavves) but to surpass them, too. Her rotund orange tabby cat, Snacks, became an Internet star. Drew Barrymore directed a Best Coast music video starring Miranda Cosgrove and Donald Glover for the track "Our Deal," and churlish critic Robert Christgau even meted out a rather rare A- for the record. Like the clothes she would soon design, these songs weren't revolutionary, but they were part and parcel to someone who just seemed cool—insouciant and confident, offhanded and funny.

But The Only Place possesses only the simulacrum of that charm. Produced by Jon Brion in Los Angeles' legendary Capitol Studios, it is a definite attempt at making a professional album devoid of all the hiss and smear of Cosentino's earlier work. "We wanted to make a record that nobody was going to call lo-fi," Cosentino told Spin in a recent cover story. They succeeded not only in cleaning up the grit but also in blanching Cosentino's tunes of life, so that the mix of Golden State bragging rights and lonely bummer trips blurs into one listless expanse. Neither end is up.

Spend some time with The Only Place, and perhaps a hook or two will catch; by and large, though, it is an incredibly forgettable record because it is so very devoid of anything to hold on to—melodically, musically or lyrically. "What a year this day has been," she sings during a vacant song about existential emptiness, sighing out a couplet so completely meaningless she's compelled to repeat it. "What a day this year has been." That line is symptomatic of a record in which a lot of style is used in service of very little substance.

The same syndrome prevails on Reign of Terror, the recent sophomore album by Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells, who play at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre Tuesday night. Like Best Coast, Sleigh Bells arrived in 2009 on a whirlwind of promise. Their early singles and a self-titled, self-released EP captured enormous beats, cheerleader chants and gnarly rock riffs within a room much too small for the sound; the songs were more like sketches, but they were delivered with enough gusto on that short debut and on the 2010 full-length Treats that those structural faults hardly mattered.

On Reign of Terror, however, they're perhaps the most memorable element. Derek E. Miller and Alexis Krauss play and sing loudly or very loudly, and they treat intricacy like anathema, meaning that hearing Reign of Terror more than a few times is both exhausting and without reward. Even on the record's breathy ballad, "Road to Hell," Krauss' voice doesn't get the room or time it needs. Sleigh Bells only attempt to turbocharge, as if their music is meant entirely as an accompaniment for an X Games intro. It is mere image.

"It's the idea of twisting the sweet and American and classic—giving it teeth, underlining it with something that's extremely perverse and uncomfortable," Krauss told GQ writer Lizzy Goodman in a February interview after confirming that the way they looked as a band indeed mattered more for this record than the last. "It plays into my Sleigh Bells image, which is that people always say I'm so nice and soft-spoken in person and such a maniac on stage. I like the idea of becoming a character."

Krauss cited her menacing appearance in the video trailer for the album, as well as the corpsepaint and bloodshed of black metal and the iconography of motorcycle clubs and Christianity. Essentially, she seemed to be invoking the culture of collage—juxtaposing surprising symbols and sources to craft a new narrative—to say nothing that Andrew W.K. hasn't already said about partying. It's not that the idea of a character is somehow wrong; art, and especially rock 'n' roll, is full of brilliant ones. It's that in both of these cases, those characters seem more and more like shells.

Sleigh Bells and Best Coast aren't alone here; in fact, a slew of recent bands have emerged with interesting ideas and then quickly forced an ineffectual follow-up. It's as if they are trying to prevent the accelerated indie hype cycle from forgetting them, so they feed it emptiness. It's easy enough to just blame this on the Internet: Music's infinite, easy and often free accessibility online prompts many of us to care less, to consider whether the surface of what we're hearing is nice, and then to move on. But the Internet has become the critic's crutch for most every shift in listening habits, from the way people pay or don't pay for music to the post-Web corrosion of standardized tastes and codified subgenres.

In this case, the Internet plays its worldwide part, but that's just a piece of a culture in which music—or, for that matter, sound—has been relegated to window dressing, or the ambient score of everyone's well-documented life. Sound has become the bedfellow of marketing and branding, whether through free MP3s now doled out by companies from Mountain Dew to Comedy Central or the very specific playlists you hear while in the national clothing chain of your preference. For evidence of how diminished music's specific value has become, consider recent instances where a corporation has allegedly stolen a sound or theme for a commercial: Volkswagen from Beach House, Home Depot from The Black Keys, the world from Sigur Rós. The songs don't matter to the brands; the moods and responses they might trigger matter more. Music, then, becomes the thin, monovalent veil above a much more important and profitable picture.

In that same Spin piece, Cosentino, her boyfriend and the reporter share the luxury box owned by Nike at a Los Angeles Lakers game. When the French band M83 booms in over the sound system, she teases her publicist: "'The Only Place' should be the theme song for the Lakers."

That would be trendy, wouldn't it?

This article appeared in print with the headline "It's fashion."

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