After an Oberstian gestation period of 12 self-released independent albums, Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest signed to Matador Records in 2015 and released the widely acclaimed Teens of Denial earlier this year. Last week, Toledo brought his band to Teragram Ballroom as part of the ongoing 30 Days of Music Red Bull Sound Select series.

Driven by a collection of anxious musings, Car Seat Headrest’s songs rock and ramble along with acerbic humor, evoking a North American counterpart to Courtney Barnett’s Down Under brand of something similar. In the live setting, the band’s tunes are full of tension and release, upbeat and tightly executed, accompanied by Toledo’s oft spoken word style of singing.

Early in the evening, Teens of Denial track “Vincent” tapped into Talking Heads energy. The song started with delicate cymbal work and hypnotic hammer on/off’s. Then it became a prep-punk frenzy, with the gangly frontman moving freely around the stage, at times playing directly at his amp.

Photo by Katy Babcock
Photo by Katy Babcock

After a breakneck pace through the first four songs, things slowed down and turned especially introspective with the solo intro of timely “America (Never Been).” Toledo introduced the tale of a cross-country trip as something he had written more than two years ago, before he had ever gone on tour.

The tune is evidence of wisdom beyond Toledo’s 24 geographically confined years, and I would’ve believed anyone if they had told me that it was a Wilco B-side or if there was a “Wet Paint” sign still hanging around what currently feel like prophetic lyrics:

In this whole solar system
We’ve only met one type of life
It’s the living kind of life, and it’s not one I recognize

Car Seat Headrest’s secret weapon is lefty guitarist Ethan Ives, who plays a biting but artful lead. His additions were often jagged or melodic and occasionally both, in the way that Jonny Greenwood’s ripping play became his personal stamp on The Bends. Ives single-handedly lifted “Fill in the Blank” into banger territory, as did his unrestrained play on “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra).”

A collection of lengthier selections off Teens of Denial were readily recognizable and sung heartily by the Sunday night crowd. “Unforgiving Girl,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” and “Destroyed by Hippie Powers” each played out riding characteristics of modern slacker anthems.

Any indifference or irony in Car Seat Headrest’s lyrics was offset by the simple joy in their playing. By the middle of “Hippie Powers,” all three members (who were not seated behind a drum kit) were jumping in unison, while the unbridled Toldeo sang like Conor once did on “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved).”

A set of tributes to larger-than-life musical icons bookended the show, two of which passed away this year. With such nods so ubiquitous in 2016, some renditions feel played out of an empty sense of obligation to a fad. Other times, such as on Sunday night, the sincerity rings true.

Car Seat Headrest elected to honor the recently and dearly departed Leonard Cohen with “Field Commander Cohen” to start the set, while David Bowie’s lead track off The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, “Five Years,” began the encore.

The final fever pitch peaked as the band transitioned from the thrash of their “Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)” into Van Morrison pleaser “Gloria,” with Will Toledo shadowboxing behind the mic.

Math suggests that Toldeo & co. are green, such that their chops have not had sufficient time to mature. But a closer look reveals the prolific dozen Bandcamp releases prior to the arrival of Teens of Denial and a well-oiled live machine. If 2016 is, in fact, some sort of new beginning for Car Seat Headrest, buckle up everybody.

Car Seat Headrest at Teragram Ballroom Setlist:

Field Commander Cohen (Leonard Cohen cover)
Cosmic Hero
Fill in the Blank
America (Never Been)
Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)
Sober to Death
Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales
Destroyed By Hippie Powers
Five Years (David Bowie cover)
Connect the Dots (The Saga of Frank Sinatra)
Gloria (Van Morrison cover)

For more information: Car Seat Headrest