Tonight’s Car Seat Headrest show was initially set to take place in Whelan’s, one of Dublin’s live music hubs, but was moved to The Academy due to demand – a nice illustration of the explosion in popularity the Seattle-based four-piece have experienced recently. The band began as the bedroom recording project of Will Toledo (born Will Barnes), drawing its name from Toledo’s initial decision to park his parent’s car in deserted shopping centres and record his vocals in the back seat, with the titular headrests as the only audience.
Toledo self-released a staggering eleven albums on Bandcamp before earning a record deal with Matador in 2015. This origin story was quickly jumped on by some as being emblematic of Bandcamp’s status as an artist-empowering tool – something you can take or leave, really. While as a platform Bandcamp is generally free of the algorithmically mediated distribution networks of Spotify et al., it’s still something with its own gatekeepers, even if they aren’t as immediately discernible as they are with the larger streaming services. Toledo certainly got where he is now by being a hard worker, but it’s impossible to overlook the fact that he’s also a freakishly talented songwriter – the kind that’ll have you constantly singing guitar interludes to yourself.
[contentblock id=141 img=adsense.png]
Car Seat Headrest’s first Matador release was 2015’s ‘Teens Of Style’, a compilation of re-recorded tracks intended as an introduction to Toledo’s intimidating Bandcamp output. This was followed by last year’s ‘Teens Of Denial’ (the first CSH album proper), comprised entirely of new material. ‘TOD’ was a critical darling, its uncanny ability to marry oblique hooks to muscular guitars drawing ubiquitous comparisons to the sort of warped pop genius of Stephen Malkmus or Robert Pollard. Lyrically, it confronts subjects like depression with a maturity that’s remarkable for a guy Toledo’s age. The record led to the standard deluge of thinkpieces mulling over the ontological status of indie rock, wondering if Toledo was potentially its “saviour”, but how exactly you “save” a genre that’s had a malleable, slippery definition virtually since its inception is anyone’s guess. Whatever about projected messiah complexes, his music has struck a fuzzy chord with audiences, as evidenced by tonight’s sold out show.
Opening for CSH tonight are Chichester alt-rockers TRAAMS, whose rugged sound is made to be heard in person. The bass is at that real thorax-shaking volume – meaning it occasionally overpowers the other elements. They fly through some numbers from 2015’s ‘Modern Dancing’ – it’s endearingly scrappy, like hearing a ‘Surfer Rosa’ tribute night in a dive bar. The Isaac Brock-via-Bloc Party vibration of their hit ‘Flowers’ gets the best reaction, until the set’s climax where they groove through a tangled, extended jam. I wander around a bit during the interval, through a sea of Toledo doppelgangers.
The main attraction eventually take the stage, with Toledo resembling a cross between Sue Perkins and Virgil Texas, and launch into ‘Teens Of Denial’ opener ‘Fill In The Blank’. It manages to energise the crowd fairly rapidly, what with its marching drum beat (courtesy of longtime drummer Andrew Katz), knotty riff and a refrain that’s practically designed for an audience call-and-response (“You have no right to be depressed, you haven’t tried hard enough to like it”). This is followed (as it does on the album) by ‘Vincent’ – a dizzying, paranoid creature of a song that clocks in at just under 8 minutes. It’s a track that again builds on a minimalist, oscillating guitar riff with a beefy, Minutemen-on-repeat rhythm section, with the live chemistry of the four substituting for the album version’s studio trickery quite well.
A vigorous rendition of ‘1937 State Park’ anticipates the poignant ‘Sober To Death’, one of just two cuts they’ll play tonight from ‘Twin Fantasy’, Toledo’s sparse masterpiece from 2011. The track contains some of the most gnomic lyrics Toledo’s ever written (“I know that good lives make bad stories”), and it’s interesting to hear the almost voyeuristically lo-fi arrangements of that album translated to a live setting. Unsurprisingly, the set is dominated by tracks from ‘TOD’, as they segue into ‘Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)’. This track is one of the more sentimental cuts from that album, which with the relative nuance of the rest of the songs makes it sound a little mawkish in context. It’s fairly exhilarating in the flesh, admittedly – even if during the song I notice some young dude offer his bandana to a young woman, investing the gesture with the gravity of some pivotal rom-com scene.
The transcendent ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ follows. It goes down very well with the audience – entirely unsurprising, given that it’s arguably the best thing Toledo has written to date; a complex, sprawling paradox of a song that’s probably best described as ‘anthemic introspection’. The fact that the band have to stop midway through after Toledo breaks two strings only adds to the performance really – the TRAAMS guys acting as impromptu roadies, which elicits an enthusiastic “Traams!…Traams!” chant from the crowd. ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales’ is pretty much where the set peaks, but they do launch into a solid, spirited cover of ‘Motorway To Roswell’, a memorable Pixies song from 1991’s ‘Trompe Le Monde’. The cover draws some confused looks from some of the milkier lads in the front row, but the fact that Toledo is a Pixies fan is no surprise – the balancing act of loud/quiet dynamics that CSH frequently pay homage to this evening is a sound the Pixies pretty much invented.
Following this is the second ‘Twin Fantasy’ cut – the stirring ‘Famous Prophets (Minds)’ – where a slight rift develops between Toledo’s irreverent approach to song structure and the by-now drunk crowd. Several intentional silences are greeted by bursts of applause, only for the band to continue playing. It’s by no means acrimonious though, and the group return for a multi-part encore that (wisely) finishes with ‘Destroyed By Hippie Powers’ – a surging, emo-tinged highlight from ‘TOD’ about someone getting a little too fucked at a house party. They leave the stage to rapturous applause, and total strangers share their takes as we all file out into the unseasonably warm night air.