Led by the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest came out of the depths of Bandcamp, and into the spotlight. What was originally Will’s solo project, the album Twin Fantasy (2011), gathered a strong cult following, leading to their eventual signing with Matador Records in 2015. Since then, Will and his now 6 (?) fellow band members have released 2 new albums, and a 3rd being a revisit to their initial success with a re-recording of Twin Fantasy (2018). They’ve been featured on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show twice now, but have yet to reach strong commercial success. That being said, they have received many mentions from popular publishers like Rolling Stone and The New Yorker for being a new and inventive band.
Following their first release under their new label; Teens of Style (2015), Teens of Denial (2016) is an ambitious journey into the minds of young adolescents, experienced directly through Will Toledo. The album is packed with several instances of great songwriting, a heavy-hitting set of instrumentals, and vocals that are a lot more highlighted compared to their other works. This being their most recent original release, I think this album shows a lot more maturity in their sound and personality. They continue to stay true to their original lo-fi sound, but do clean up a lot of the instrumentation, and tune it down enough to let the vocals shine through. It seems as if they wanted to be themselves, while allowing for more depth in the music by getting rid of unnecessary clutter in their songs, and I think it works really well.
While it does explore the late-teens to early-twenties of Will’s life, it stays away from most cliches of this “edgy” “dramatic” spectrum that a lot of rock, specifically punk groups, fall into. This is with one exception, in the song “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” where the chorus “It’s an unforgiving world, but she’s not an unforgiving girl” seems a bit plain and predictable. However, overall it’s an interesting and intriguing album filled with great story-telling and obvious passion for what’s being discussed. For example, the song “Drunk Driving / Killer Whales” is less about how drunk driving is bad, and more about exploring Will’s mind to explain the depression and circumstances that bring someone to do such a thing. It pulls no punches as well, with random, funny one-liners like “I’ve been waiting for some real good porn,” that sort of show off how honest he’s being when he writes these songs. These clever lines and important sub-texts flow throughout the album, and find themselves on most of the tracks, accumulating into one product that sort of illustrates the maturation of Will. And while he doesn’t necessary come to a foregone conclusion at the end of the album, the exploration of these ideas is a step in the right direction in learning how to grow up as a person.
Musically and stylistically, it’s another entrance into the realm of lo-fi “indie” or “alternative” rock that’s become trendy in the past decade or so. The album goes further than their others in experimenting with different instruments. They use anything from piano, to horns in several of their songs, most often in the background of heavy-hitting choruses, but also in intros. It helps add to the magnitude of these epic moments in their music where Will can show off his higher vocal range, and step away from the typical lower, drowning vocals that he normally presents. That being said, the majority of the album is still dominated by a slower, lazily-done vocal presentation, very reminiscent of someone like Kurt Cobain, or other grunge-artists. I don’t know if I could place the album into one genre or category, but I think one of the most shining resemblances I see is that of an early 90’s grunge band. I don’t know if Seattle is rubbing off on them, but this influence seems more relevant and obvious in this album than in any other, to me personally.
The main differences I see between Car Seat Headrest and other bands, on this album specifically, is that they take from their influences rather than re-produce them. Many more popular alternative rock groups as of late (Cage the Elephant, Royal Blood, etc.) replicate more than add onto the groups they love, and I don’t think they have an album as original as Teens of Denial. Don’t get me wrong, I love myself some Royal Blood, but that’s mostly because I’m a huge White Stripes fan, and a lot of times their music sounds exactly like something Jack White would make. Car Seat Headrest is incredibly different, where I can pinpoint certain sounds that remind me of groups such as Nirvana and the Pixies, but their intelligent songwriting and experimental instrumentals sets them apart from these bands and makes them their own entity.
Overall, Car Seat Headrests’ album, Teens of Denial, is a strong example of an incredibly talented, underground rock band led by a great personality and musician, Will Toledo. Filled with tons of raw emotion and passion, the album is a great, original, and pretty self-aware exploration of issues everyone goes through during transitions in life, while being a great experiment musically. Sporting a 1 hour and 10 minute run time, many tracks have several different pieces and transitions that meld together into an overall experience that may leave you questioning what life is truly about.
Favorite Tracks: “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem),” “Drunk Drivers / Killer Whales,” “Cosmic Hero”
Least Favorite Track: “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)”