Artist Spotlight courtesy of FireintheArcade
I have a confession to make to you guys.I don’t have any incredibly special personal connection to Car Seat Headrest. I don’t have any deep emotional back story with how I first listened to them. A friend recommended them and he played a song for me. I wasn’t immediately enthralled by the lead singer, and for a long time, only member, Will Toledo’s voice. In fact Toledo himself goes to great lengths to hide it behind heavy levels of fuzz and distortion on the earliest albums. Even with all of this considered, Car Seat Headrest is the band I have chosen to write my artist spotlight on? Why? Presumably for many of the same reasons that the band has managed to rise above a single 18 year old recording songs in the backseat of a car in Leesburg, Virginia because he was too self conscious to record them at home. I chose this band for the same reasons that a band whose first album was release on Bandcamp with the tagline “I probably would not have been able to make this album if I had thought anyone was going to listen to it” is now preparing to release their first new album on Matador Records.
A lot of these reasons boil down to the lyrics. Simply put, the lyrics are clever. The lyrics are full of allusions, whether it’s to other musician’s songs, to poets, or to the heads of the record labels that just signed them (“Got to have faith in the one above me / Got to believe that Lombardi loves me.”) Will Toledo has an incredible talent for taking familiar themes (young love, isolation, depression) and creating something new with them. He has that talent for unique turns of phrase that stay with you. When combined with catchy lo fi guitar hooks that take clear inspiration from the likes of Dinosaur Jr and Pavement, Car Seat Headrest cannot go wrong.
Thanks to the magic of the internet, Will Toledo’s song writing career can be traced to albums on Bandcamp recorded on a laptop at the age of 18 in the backseat of a family car. In fact, the band’s name refers to his sole audience member at the time: the car seat headrest directly in front of him. Toledo doesn’t deny and I won’t either. These albums are not great. There are five in total that have not been deemed high enough qulity to make the leap to Spotify. These are titled 1, 2, 3, 4, and Little Pieces of Paper With the Word “No” Written on Them (can’t get too predictable. The recording quality on these albums, unsurprisingly, is often suspect. Still, there is a certain appeal to these albums. In them you can see a young songwriter working out his own voice, working out what his influences are. In them, you can see someone grow up as a songwriter and as human being. Toledo struggles with the pressures of college, the pressures of figuring out one’s direction.
You Have to Go to College
The song shows some of the strong pop influences on Toledo. The layered vocals are almost reminiscent of the Beach Boys, who Toledo has alluded to multiple times in other songs.
My Back is Killing Me Baby
The first album deemed worthy of Spotify is My Back is Killing Me Baby, released on March 26, 2011. While this isn’t a breakthrough album in any way, there is a definite feeling of cohesion the the Bandcamp only albums before it lack.
My Back is Killing Me Baby
This song is built around a simple, crisp acoustic guitar, somewhat of a departure for Toledo. Yet many of the staples are there. There’s the droning blasts of distortion, the sort of falsetto voice that he occasionally employs, the multiple layers of vocals, and most importantly, great lyrics. My personal favorite from the song is “I liked you better when you hated yourself. Every time I think about love I think about me thinking about you”
The real breakthrough for Car Seat Headrest came on Twin Fantasy. Although the album still didn’t receive much recognition from major music news sources, buzz about the album started spreading across forums, and it is probably the most popular album of the pre record label phase. His album’s have gradually relied less and less on the lo fi aspect of his music, but this album proves just what that aesthetic can accomplish. It is full of that sense of the melancholy of growing up and unrequited love. Also, the album art is super cute.
The song starts with a hard fast, drum beat and it doesn’t really let up from there. The songs heavily self conscious, as Toledo asks himself “is it the chorus yet?”, and then immediately answers with “No, it’s just the building of the verse, so when the chorus does come, it’ll be more rewarding”.The chorus does not disappoint, with a nice guitar scale gliding through the background. There are even background whoops similar to those of fellow lo fi stars Wavves and Cloud Nothings.
Monomania continues on the strong formula set forth by Twin Fantasy. It opens with the great track Romantic Theory, and keeps the upbeat pace throughout most of the album.
Here’s some of the album’s songs being played in a kitchen.
Nervous Young Man
This album is the name that Toledo released some of his earliest work under. In terms of length, and in my opinion, quality, it is his magnum opus, clocking in at two hours and nine minutes. The shortest song is four and a half minutes, and there are two that clock in at over 15. Toledo’s song writing is on full display on this album as he bounces from topic to topic. The production is also more varied, as he cuts back on the reliance on distortion and introduces more electronic sounds.
The Gun Song (No Trigger Version)
This song is 15 minutes long. I understand that that is a long time for a lot of people. However, if you choose just a single song of this write up to listen to, it should be this one. It follows the story of a mutually toxic relationship. The song travels effortlessly from upbeat and angry to slow and melancholy as it follows the ups and downs of the realtionship. It is also some of his best lyrical work, featuring lines like “behind every great love story lies a great suicide / you can’t give yourself completely and keep the man inside” and “All I know is, one of us was supposed to kill the other / Isn’t that what they mean when they say ‘lovers’?” Seriously, just listen to this song please.
I Can Play Piano
This song shows off some of the pop sensibilities that can sometime be lost to those who don’t enjoy the low fi, distortion heavy sound of a lot of his work. It shows some of the maturity he has developed as he’s learned “You’re an adult and you can starve yourself to death / You’ve got to seek help if you’re chronically depressed”.
How To Leave Town
How To Leave Town continues to progress Toledo’s sound away from sitting in the back of the car recording into a laptop microphone. As a whole, the production is definitely stepped up. It is the last album released without a label.
Kimochi Warui (When?)
This song is one of the most obvious examples of the stepped up production level on this album. It mixes the lo fi guitars with more melodic electronic instruments. It’s also just really good.
Teens of Style
This is the first album released on the label of Matador Records. It is a sort of refresher course meant to bring people up to speed on Car Seat Headrest. The album is made up entirely of reworked versions of previous tracks, mostly from the albums My Back is Killing Me Baby and Monomania. It was a chance for Will Toledo to take everything he has learned while creating music and apply it to the music he created while he was still early in the learning process. This would be the best album to start with for a new listener, and it serves as a sort of capstone to the era of Car Seat Headrest being only Will Toledo.
This is one of Car Seat Headrest’s most popular song, and there is good reason for it. The original version of this song was on Monomania.
The chorus on this song simply rocks. It’s also the first Car Seat Headrest song to get a music video. The original version of this song was on My Back is Killing Me.
Teens of Denial
This album is slated for a 2016 release. It is the first fully new studio album for Car Seat Headrest, and it is also the first album with four members instead of one. Car Seat Headrest now includes Ethan Ives, Andrew Katz, and Seth Dalby. Two singles have been released so far.
Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales
One of the two new singles from the upcoming album. It doesn’t sound drastically different from previous albums, but it is still a very good song. Toledo also shows slightly more confidence in singing than many of his previous albums.
NPR Tiny Desk Concert
Will Toledo plays The Drum along with the two singles from the new album, Vincent and Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales. While I enjoyed this performance a lot, there are some that got turned off somewhat by his voice. The acoustic setup puts more pressure on his vocals, which are already unique. They transmit emotion well, but it’s easy to see how some could find them grating. Still, it’s looking the future is bright for Car Seat Headrest.
Please let me know if there are any major grammar problems. I did proofread, but I proofread at one in the morning, so it may not have been the most effective.