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Queens of L.A.'s lo-fi scene

Nurtured by the Smell, a new crop of female rockers with similar DIY aesthetics has emerged in L.A.

February 07, 2010|By Jeff Weiss >>>
  • L.A. WOMEN: The city's up-and-comers include, from left, Piper, top, and Skylar Kaplan; Bethany Cosentino; Ramona Gonzalez; and Dee Dee.
L.A. WOMEN: The city's up-and-comers include, from left, Piper,… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

It's the night after New Year's Eve and hundreds of kids are crammed into the Smell, the downtown DIY tabernacle of the Los Angeles avant-garde. A sweating mass of art students, skate punks and subterranean scene staples ecstatically moshes to a blistering set from Mika Miko, an (almost) all-girl punk rock quintet celebrating its dissolution the only way the group knows how: with a farewell performance heavy on serrated guitars, funky bass lines and one of the band's singers, Jennifer Clavin, screeching lyrics about turkey sandwiches into a Soviet-style red telephone doubling as a mike.

In its six-year existence, the Sub Pop-signed outfit emerged as arguably the city's most vital bunch of female rockers since the Go-Go's, a female analog to Smell standard-bearers No Age. Yet their demise inspired only a handful of respectful eulogies around the blogosphere and little of the hand-wringing about the state of women in rock that accompanied Sleater-Kinney's breakup in 2006.

The reasons behind the differing reactions to the departure of two important female acts from the music scene are manifold, but one of the easier explanations is the vitality and breadth of Mika Miko's local heirs apparent. Over the last half-decade, a group of exciting artists united by their use of inexpensive home recording technology has begun to emerge out of the Silver Lake, Echo Park and downtown scenes.

The performers below rank among the brightest talents continuing the female rock tradition -- which, of course, dates back decades -- though there are others around here, including Glasser, Warpaint, Julia Holter, Sarah Negahdari of the Happy Hollows and Annie Hardy of Giant Drag, to name a few.

Mika Miko might be sorely missed, but no one's hanging on the telephone.

Best Coast

This is the situation: Bethany Cosentino, 23, La Crescenta-raised with blond bangs, fled to New York City two years ago to attend Eugene Lang College. Studying journalism and creative nonfiction, she read Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace and other authors she enjoyed; she interned at the Fader magazine, where she penned a fashion column. But midway through her second semester, she realized she was miserable.

"Initially, being in a snowstorm was nice, but after two weeks, I started thinking about all my friends enjoying 80-degree sunshine in February," Cosentino said.

"New York is an amazing city with a wonderful culture and history, but I had to come home."

Returning to La Crescenta to finish the semester from her mom's house, Cosentino took study breaks by unearthing an acoustic guitar to relieve her anxiety over her departure. Obsessed with surf music, the Ronettes and the Angels, and Fleetwood Mac, the young woman who had spent plenty of time in high school sneaking out to see punk rock shows at the Smell started writing songs that conjured images of white sand, tall surf, strong sun and stronger smoke -- all tinged with post-teen angst and her newfound ardor for L.A.

Cosentino aptly described the songs as "stoned love letters to imaginary boyfriends."

The name Best Coast seemed obvious.

When Cosentino passed on her songs to her friend and future bandmate Bobb Bruno, a well-respected fixture within the underground community, they quickly assumed a life of their own. Primarily recorded at Bruno's home studio, a trio of 7-inch records earned Cosentino instant acclaim, including a coveted best new music designation from Pitchfork.

"[Cosentino] has a great ear for melody, and being around the local punk scene has helped her style become more unique than others striving for a similar sound," said Dean Spunt, the singer-drummer of No Age, whose label, Post Present Medium, is releasing a forthcoming Best Coast 7-inch single.

In the middle of a Southern California winter, Cosentino has developed a new favorite obsession, MTV's reality series "Jersey Shore." While elitists might scoff at the lowbrow fixation, it's precisely Cosentino's ability to balance pop and underground sensibilities that has made her sound so unique.

"That type of person is unfathomable and almost exotic to my West Coast experiences," Cosentino said of the "Jersey Shore" cast members.

"But I respect that they've dealt with the winter and the cold months and are psyched that summer's finally arrived. I'm all about summer."

Dum Dum Girls

It's a dumb move to call Dee Dee of the Dum Dum Girls "Kristin" -- as in Kristin Gundred, the given name of the frontwoman for the all-female quartet. Should you make this error, you will be politely asked to address her by the pseudonym she adopted when she first named her group after an Iggy Pop song and a Vaselines album.

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