Had Will Toledo been born 20 years prior, the jangly guitar rock he makes under the Car Seat Headrest moniker would've been categorized by critics as "college rock." The 24 year-old Virginia native is a walking "Best of Matador Records" hit machine, but the odds of finding a current college student who's had the interest or the patience to go deep on anything from the venerable indie label besides a couple Pavement records are incredibly low. The market for what Toledo sells so well on this year's Teens of Denial is definitely still there, as evidenced by the fact that he sold out the Wonder Ballroom on Nov. 25. But it's getting harder and harder for the kind of rock fan drawn to his wry and self-aware assessments of youth, coolness and the abstract effects of not-so-casual drug use to keep the faith in a genre the mainstream music press has very little use for anymore.
But don't bother telling Toledo that. As often is the case, his youth is to thank for his guilelessness, enabling Toledo to serve as a sincere and invigorated conduit of reliable indie sounds he still finds fresh and exciting. As such, chasing their opener "Cosmic Hero" with a minute of the chorus from Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" was more like a conciliatory gesture for the olds than outright pandering—like a hot towel and a complimentary mint on a budget cross-country airline flight. Teens of Denial opener "Fill In the Blank" followed, and the energy of the set maintained a buzzing intensity as the majority of the record was aired out. Songs like "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales" and the almost eight-minute epic "Vincent" maintained their brisk and heady weightlessness, showing expert discretion on Toledo's behalf for opting not to jam them out an extra five minutes like his heroes would've like done.
The closeness of the live renditions of his many show-stopping tracks to their recorded versions could be considered a knock on the experience, but Toledo is keenly aware of the pitfalls that exist in his world of loose and often-drunk noodling. The focus and chops of his group are commendable given their relatively quick rise from prolific Bandcamp cult heroes to mid-sized venue headliner status, and even the swaggering, slightly offbeat covers like a jagged tear through David Bowie's "Blackstar" were sharper than expected. Guitarist Ethan Ives shined during his solo cover of the late Leonard Cohen's "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy," the first song of an encore that was bookended by an incredibly bizarre and off-kilter cover of Patti Smith's "Gloria," which found Toledo guitarless and shimmying in a manner that was way too gawky to feel like a put-on.
At the current rate at which indie rock sees a new savior like Toledo emerge heroically to capture the hearts and minds of academics who've made it their job to deny the relevance and power of music based on crunchy guitar chords and observational songwriting, it's likely that Car Seat Headrest has about one more year in the sun before the next Parquet Courts or Deerhunter storms through and captures the throne. But for now, Car Seat Headrest reigns supreme. PETE COTTELL.
All photos by Henry Cromett.