Will Toledo's prime time debut serves as both a primer and a victory lap.
Will Toledo was one of the busier musicians at CMJ earlier this month when this year’s edition of the music marathon sprawled out across the Lower East Side and North Brooklyn for the better part of a week. One of what seemed like nearly a dozen shows that Car Seat Headrest played took place at Rough Trade, where Toledo began the band’s set lying flat on his back on stage, with the mic perched on an angled stand inches above his face. Aside from being an obvious photo op for the gathering audience (who were happy to oblige), the don’t-look-at-me-but-look-at-me gesture felt like a link in a long chain of semi-passive indie rock postures. Instead of the Jesus and Mary Chain turning disregard (or, really, shyness) into confrontation by playing with their backs to the audience, Toledo’s anti-action felt instead like an invitation to the reality of a bedroom balladeer: recumbent on the floor, a guitar balanced on your stomach, staring up at the ceiling between you and the stars.
“All of my friends are getting married / All of my friends are right with God / All of my friends are making money / But art gets what it wants and art gets what it deserves," begins “Times to Die”. Toledo is 23 years old. Are all of his friends Mormon bankers? He’s a wunderkind of some kind for sure, because being surrounded by the wedded and financially stable isn’t quite the typical experience for millennials with fresh undergraduate degrees. Perhaps Toledo is projecting; reckoning with an artist’s future that, though he hasn’t lived it yet, he has planted himself on the cusp of with Teens of Style.
Except that Toledo has already amassed a career’s worth of recorded work. His Matador debut is also his 12th release. His Monomania -- which featured the original version of “Times to Die”, meaning he actually composed those opening lines when he was barely 20 -- came out close to a year before Deerhunter’s. Anyone still questioning the power of Bandcamp as an alternative outlet for burgeoning songwriting talent should take a good look at the trajectory of Car Seat Headrest. There are solid ideas scattered across even the earliest releases that Toledo has now essentially disowned.
Two other songs from Monomania, “Maud Gone” and “Los Boorachos”, find themselves spruced up on Teens of Style along with “Times to Die”. A version of “Oh! Starving” was also the final track on the Starving While Living EP. Roughly half of the songs on this album first took shape on My Back Is Killing Me Baby, which dates back to 2011. Interestingly, Teens of Style doesn’t feature any re-worked material from either How to Leave Town or Nervous Young Man, his most recent two releases. So while the record is not exactly a wholly new artistic statement for Toledo, it does serve two significant purposes: it invites a new audience with an array of songs already known to appeal to existing Car Seat Headrest fans, and it allows Toledo the opportunity to polish up his past before the release of Teens of Denial, the album that will come after this.
How to Leave Town and Nervous Young Man also might have been passed over here because they indulged in certain tendencies that Teens of Style pulls away from. Toledo had up to that point been paying less and less attention to the clock. Songs from those two albums could go on for up to fifteen minutes or more, as did “The Ending of Dramamine”, “Boxing Day”, and “The Gun Song”. Overall the results of such stretching out were mixed, but going epic seemed to be way forward on How to Leave Town. Teens of Style pumps the brakes on that tendency, and it will be interesting to see if Teens of Denial lets it loose again.
Toledo now has a full band in tow (the most recent live iteration has featured guitarist Ethan Ives and drummer Andrew Katz) and these eleven songs do sound fuller and livelier than their earlier counterparts. Teens of Style has a ramshackle ‘60s-inflected basement vibe, as if Guided By Voices spent their jam sessions vaping legal weed instead of pounding racks of macro brews. It’s an outpouring of introversion. Songs occasionally wander, but they always have something to say. Which is what makes the purposeful distorting and distancing created by the vocal effects a curious distraction. Funneling his voice through a tunnel of reverb worked well at first for Youth Lagoon, but Trevor Powers has moved on from that aesthetic defense mechanism, and Toledo should as well.