In a year where politicians are promising to make things great again, the same could possibly be said about rock music. Like America, rock may no longer be the center of attention, rock critics constantly looking for a savior to bring rock back into the mainstream.
While rock has been great all this time (with great acts like St. Vincent, Tame Impala, Parquet Courts, Savages to name a few.), there are still certain sparks that remind me of rock in the days of my youth, when it sounded vibrant and exciting like nothing else. 23-year-old Virginian Will Toledo is in the days of his youth and writes about youth like few others: on his first two albums 2015’s Teens of Style and now 2016’s Teens of Denial. Teens of Style was indeed stylish, the sound of a twentysomething songwriting genius writing Strokes-style songs in his garage. Teens of Denial has plenty of thrilling rock songs, but there is also incredible songwriting craft and compositional ambition on Teens of Denial: an absolute magnum opus about youth and young manhood.
Teens of Style is a concept record about a character named Joe as he faces emergent adulthood. On Teens of Denial, Toledo sings each song like it could be life and death (which is how it feels as a teenager), in the same way Springsteen sounded on Born to Run or the Replacements on Let It Be. Obviously those are lofty comparisons, but at times Teens of Denial sounds and feels the part of an instant classic. Even with so much seemingly at stake in songs like “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An)” and “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, Toledo maintains a dry wit throughout, throwing out funny one-liners here and there to keep it grounded.
Toledo knows how to do epic songs the right way: not in a cheesy, ridiculous, or snobby way, but songs that strap you into a roller coaster, and make you want to ride over and over even when you know which twists and turns are coming. From the opening bending riff of “Vincent”, it’s clear you really need to strap in, especially as each instrument comes in and picks up speed, until you are hurled around in a shroud of noise that you hope never ends. “The Ballad of Costa Concordia” is 11-minute mini-song cycle filled with moments of sobriety, eagerness, apathy, and pure bliss – really the full encapsulation of feelings of adolescence – topped off with a refrain from Dido’s “White Flag” to capture the disillusionment of millennials. On “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, juxtaposes two seemingly dissimilar subjects, the aforementioned drunk drivers and killer whales, then uses them as a comparison to himself and teens like himself: an out-of-control, unpredictable danger to themselves and those around them. Toledo laments “We are not a proud race/It’s not a race at all/We’re just trying/I’m only trying to get home.”
Sonically, Car Seat Headrest isn’t reinventing the wheel but sort of taking pieces of the best indie rock in the past few decades: the rock drive and observations of youth in America like The Hold Steady, cool apathy and catchy rock melodies like the Strokes, and bombastic and unconventional songs and bookish smart lyrics like Okkervil River.
This is a big reason why people are excited about Car Seat Headrest. The world of “indie rock” as it was known in the early 21st century is not what it used to be, and Car Seat Headrest is being held up as our last big hope to take indie rock’s place in the world back. While Will Toledo may not be a racist, misogynist bully or indie rock’s savior, he is another excellent young rock talent that shows rock will remain vibrant, even if it’s on the margins. Independent rock can be great, even when it’s not the coolest and biggest kid on the block.
Can’t Miss: “Vincent”, “The Ballad of Costa Concordia”, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, “Destroyed by Hippie Powers”
Can’t Hit: None