Music Reviews
Teens of Denial

Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial

(Matador) Rating - 9/10

Will Toledo likes to make fun of his own contempt. The humor is dry and sober, disguised with a self-trumpeting seriousness that also exposes his impotence. Some of it is darned brilliant. “I didn’t want you to hear that shake in my voice/ my pain is my own,” Toledo quivers in one of Teens of Denial’s most anthemic moments, giving way to a disillusionment that stifles his own conviction. And so it goes for the majority of Toledo’s first “actual” full-length as Car Seat Headrest, a project he's long-gestated by way of his own bandcamp account before Matador signed him late last year. It’s a pretty sweet deal for the profusely bummed-out Toledo, though instead of making peace with his own conscience, it’s good to know that Denial still preserves a time and a place that honors his younger self.

Toledo’s shameful witticisms are encrusted within the quaint bricks and walls of colonial Williamsburg, the city that played as a setting for most of his songwriting during his college years. Most of Denial was written during this time, so there’s a chucklesome angst that appropriately expresses the confusion of being at an age where you’re transitioning from college to adulthood. There’s an infinite amount of quotable lines throughout that alternate between fiction and reality, and they often express a strong wish that things could be different; desiderative phrases like “if only” are spread through thick and thin, making for a compelling narrator who’s both sides empathetic and pitiful. He has a remarkable range of emotional truths: “It’s too late to articulate it/ that empty feeling/ you share the same fate as the people you hate," Toledo points out with an almost matter-of-fact tone over a Byrds-ian chord progression in Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales, a six-minute multiparter that begins with a quietly sustained chord (which is fast-becoming his signature style) until in breaks into a mirthful sing-a-long.

As it is with younger musicians who’ve been exposed to music during the emergence of the information age, there’s a deluge of influences speckled throughout Teens of Denial’s hour-long runtime. Even if he borrows from many sources, he’s made the resolute choice of emphasizing some fuzz-powered chaos on a grand scale. He’s very consistent with his choices: the sugar power rush of Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An) manages to fit in some Badfinger guitar hooks with the Strokes’ spiked-up backbeat, while the cowbell-measured Destroyed by Hippie Powers gathers its strength from the forceful riffs and sardonic reflections of mid-nineties bands like Fountains of Wayne and Harvey Danger. But this revisionist homage is heightened to unprecedented levels with the thoughtfully conceived Just What I Needed/Not What I Needed, which seamlessly cobbles together a chord progression reminiscent to The Cars’ iconic Just What I Needed until it actually morphs INTO Just What I Needed. Unfortunately, the track has since been scrapped due to a licensing conflict, and to meet Ric Ocasek’s wish of not sampling the track; thankfully, it’s been reworked in similar fashion, and in fact retains and improves upon the originals’ potent chorus.

There’s an ease that surrounds his overall comportment, which is a feat considering Toledo has a never-ending itch to write complicated song structures. And yet he never succumbs to heavy-handed improvisations: the eleven and a half minute The Ballad of Costa Concordia is for the most part an airy, country-ballad replete with grandstanding horns that otherwise offer up some disconcerting insight into his unease (“If only I could sustain my anger/ feel it stronger and stronger/ it sharpens to a point it sheds my skin”), gradually building up into a cathartic anthem that would make David Berman proud. And then it just completely veers off the rails with a galloping finish where Toledo puts an end to his anxiety with hardly any resolve as he refrains, "I give up!" The minor jest to U2 with its faint use of delay is also cheekily amusing; and I said before, the guy’s got a shrewd sense of humor. But Toledo doesn’t always rely on the self-referential as a crutch, and in the parenthetical-friendly (Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem), which is one of the only tracks I’d attribute some lazy comparison to Pavement, he transforms into everyday alter ego Joe. He chronicles one of the most compelling acid trips put on record, using a hilarious reference to the film Saló with startling effect and in a way that doesn’t come across as highbrow.

Despite his unrestrained self-deprecation, Toledo adopts an amiable trait of character that makes him affecting in his misery. If anything, he’ll find any reason to mock his own pretensions. “You have no right to be depressed / You haven’t tried hard enough to like it,” he wisecracks, later stating the point that he hasn’t lived long enough to experience life’s true challenges. There’s a lot that Toledo is worried about throughout Teens of Denial: joblessness, a spiritual emptiness, losing his keys, a lack of good porn. It’s the adequate album to write when you’re on a quest to become something, later to realize that you’ve no idea how to carry on fulfilling that need. It’s a transition that Toledo perfectly captures, one that he’s relieved to have outgrown. One that he’ll soon realize he’s going to have to revisit over and over again. At least he got a killer rock album out of it.