Review Summary: We are not a proud race
For those of you who take a liking to the more lo-fi side of indie music or the Bandcamp music scene, you might have heard of a small project named Car Seat Headrest. Whether it was their early stuff that was recorded in the backseat of singer-songwriter Will Toledo’s car, or it was 2011’s Twin Fantasy
, which gathered quite a bit of buzz for Will, this project has been getting quite a bit of attention in those specific circles. Fast forward 6 years and this DIY one-man act has a full band and a record deal with independent rock legends Matador Records. Another milestone that Car Seat Headrest has reached in recent years is the abandonment of their lo-fi roots. Thing is, this change is for the better when it comes to Teens of Denial
, the album that has nearly perfected the formula Toledo has been working with for over half a decade now. Albums like Twin Fantasy
and Nervous Young Man
had Will’s vocals either distorted, sloppily double-tracked over each other, or just overtaken by the lo-fi production to the point where you could barely hear what he was saying. On Teens of Denial
, the vocals are finally front and center for everyone to hear. But what do we hear? Some of the best songs to come out of this Car Seat Headrest project and their best album yet.
Earlier Car Seat Headrest records get a lot of their emotional weight from very confessional yet clever lyrics, which isn’t a bad lyrical approach at all. However, some otherwise perfectly fine tracks were burdened with awkward lines that just didn’t mesh well within the song’s structure. On Teens of Denial
, while not quite as tell-all with his words, Will’s lyrics flow faultlessly, yet he still manages to deliver lines with a keen attention to detail that’ll cut you deep with their odd relatability (the line “What happened to that chubby little kid who smiled so much and loved the Beach Boys? / What happened is I killed that ***er and I took his name and I got new glasses”
from “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” hits disturbingly close to home for me). While not every line hits that type of emotional sweet spot, that doesn’t take away from incredibly emotional tales Will brings to the table on Denial
. Songs like “Vincent” and the 11-minute epic “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” portray a character who comes across on these songs as someone who’s tried so hard to find happiness, but life has thrown him through so much turmoil that it almost seems like a void effort. However, while this is definitely a sad album lyrically, it isn’t all grey clouds and wilted flowers. A talent of Will’s has always been his ability to offset the heavier topics on his records with his own brand of humor that works well with his personality. The summery, laid-back “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” uses this dark humor to make light of Toledo’s addictions and encounter with Jesus during an acid trip, coming up with a song that comes with a few comedic winners, “Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms / I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of *** / In a stupid looking jacket.”
But the strongest statements from this record come from the moments where redemption is striven for; case in point: “Drunk Driver/Killer Whales”. This track has Will at his most impassioned for change, sending out a call to action for himself to get his life back together and to, “Turn off the engine / Get out of the car / and start to walk”
. A beautifully passionate song that ranks as one of the best singles of 2016 and one of the best Car Seat Headrest songs to date.
It may not be the album’s shining jewel, but the instrumentation on Teens of Denial
isn’t anything to sneeze at. For the majority of the record, the band decides to follow in the footsteps of the their lo-fi days and keep an overall simple palette: guitar, bass, and drums. What they have revamped is the performances. The riffs and guitar work are tighter than ever, bringing more clarity to the melodic qualities they’ve always had. If there was anyone else that really showed their stuff, it would be Andrew Katz. His drumming adds so much more momentum and emotional power to the more climactic songs in the tracklisting. However, some of the greatest music moments on the record are when they take the occasional deviation away from their meat and potatoes. When some extra instrumentation is introduced every once and a while, it makes those rare moments that much more special. The horns on “Vincent” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” take these two songs to another level and the trumpet that kicks off “Cosmic Hero” is the most beautiful moment on the entire record.
There is no doubt that Teens of Denial
is going to be Car Seat Headrest’s most successful album thus far. Signing onto a label that’s been home to indie rock staples Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Guided by Voices and getting critical acclaim from almost every major music publication is going to be very helpful with that. In addition, aside from an increase in popularity, it’s also one of the band’s most promising efforts. If this is what we get from a true major label debut, an immaculately produced indie rock album that tops every Car Seat Headrest record preceding it, just imagine what Will Toledo and Company could be capable of in a couple years with more experience as a full band. We may be in the presence of the next big indie rock titan that could breathe some needed fresh air into the genre. But for now, let’s just be thankful for the progression we’ve seen so far.