Monday, May 30, 2016

album review: 'teens of denial' by car seat headrest

Let me propose a hypothetical scenario. You're a boss of a fairly well-regarded independent record label - especially considering you don't engage in copyright nonsense on YouTube to stifle criticism - with a pretty potent roster but always hungry to expand. And in the course of sifting through prospects, you find an astoundingly prolific indie artist off Bandcamp known for self-producing some surprisingly catchy indie rock that might have crossover potential. Do you sign this guy, and if so, how do you best market him?

Well, if you're the CEO of Matador Records, this might seem like a no-brainer, but in retrospect bringing the critically acclaimed indie rock project Car Seat Headrest onboard might have been more trouble than its worth. Oh, sure, for production it wouldn't be a huge issue - no need to hire Steve Albini when the mastermind of the project Will Toledo effectively produced everything himself - but how to best position him onto the market, especially considering he already had something of a cult following? In retrospect, I think Matador found a mostly workable solution - take cuts from his eleven self-released records and slice them into a comprehensive whole with a little more polish - but it also meant the buzz didn't quite materialize in the same way, at least for critics like myself.

And yet I started getting requests to cover the follow-up record Teens Of Denial almost immediately - although the headaches had only gotten worse for Matador, as all physical copies of the album have gotten recalled over a sampling clearance mess surrounding an interpolation of a snippet from a Cars song 'Just What I Needed', that Ric Ocasek rescinded at the last minute. Estimated losses are around $50,000 - and for an indie label pushing a relative unknown even despite critical acclaim, that's a considerable loss. Thankfully, I was still able to pick up the album digitally to figure out what the fuss was about - what did I find?

This is the sort of album that's a little tough for me to evaluate - and not because it's bad. No, I could easily make the argument that it's probably going to land as one of my favourite records of this year... but the problem is that it's me making that argument. Because Teens Of Denial by Car Seat Headrest is specifically made for two types of people: teenagers who are cool enough to get invited to the parties but never cool enough to really fit in; and music critics who grew up in the 90s and 2000s who love indie rock and remember being those teenagers - hi, everyone! As such, there's always that additional element of due diligence that clicks into place when I start listening to a record like this that could easily play as 'critic-bait', especially for my generation. So did Will Toledo manage to create something that transcends obvious pandering or does it devolve into a bloated, self-indulgent mess?

Well, let's not kid ourselves here: it's a record focusing on teenage depression that averages a song length at nearly six minutes and flirts with the edges of modern emo, of course it's going to have self-indulgent elements. The question becomes whether they're an issue and the answer to that is... well, occasionally it is, but not quite at the point where you might think. What should be remembered is that the indie pop rock that Car Seat Headrest is drawing on - Pavement, early Weezer, maybe a bit of Slint or Green Day - tended to keep things fast-paced and brief so that the underlying heavy emotions didn't hurt their hooks or momentum. Will Toledo operates under a slightly different approach, namely that if you throw enough catchy melodies and hooks into a song, it might get cluttered but it'd add up to more than the sum of its parts. And what gets astonishing is how often it sticks the landing and forms cohesive songs - mostly thanks to the lyrics, which we'll get to in a bit - but also because Toledo is a smart songwriter with a great handle for layering and sequencing his hooks. Take a song like 'The Ballad Of Costa Concordia', which runs for eleven and a half minutes and features a good four or five change-ups in mood and groove, and yet all of them work because they all feel thematically cohesive, naturally flow into each other, and lead into an ending that's somber and a little eerie with the mellotron, but still connects a slightly alien but poignant moment of intimacy. Now there are songs that do run long or get tied into instrumental tangents - despite a really strong opening with the slow build of horns and the organ near the end, 'Cosmic Hero' does feel a little drawn out, and 'Unforgiving Girl (She's Not An)' could do for a tighter edit, especially on the outro - but the surprising thing is how well many of these songs hold together with various brands of fuzzed out, ragged riffs, tight grooves, and sparse but workable percussion lines. And there really are some stellar moments: the little wheedling riff that is contorted through horns and a 2-step groove on 'Vincent', the sharper groove on 'Destroyed By Hippie Powers', the muted mellotron that builds to the great chorus line of 'Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales', and that outro on '(Joe Gets Kicked Out Of School For Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn't A Problem)' is one of the niftiest examples of tight writing mirrored by an instantly recognizable hook. The way I initially described this record is if Rivers Cuomo saw fit to abandon pop structures altogether, but I think an American Idiot-era Green Day comparison works too - although this album is nowhere as clean in its textures, which for me is only a positive.

But at this point, to get into the meat of this record we need to talk about Will Toledo and his songwriting, because while he's something of an unassuming vocalist - minus a few moments where he howls his lungs out fairly well - the writing on this record deserves a lot of attention if only for its detail and layered complexity. And I need to start with the framing, because while this record does have some personal references, Toledo is placing himself in the perspective of a depressed teenager with a distinctive arc of his own. And what I appreciate is that while it's definitely a sympathetic and populism portrayal, it's also not shying away from portraying this alter-ego's whiny, antisocial self-absorption, to the point where the masturbation metaphors start feeling a little too on the nose. And he doesn't shy away from painting this alter-ego's actions as reckless, stupid, or even done for all of the wrong reasons, even if he does sympathize with the overheated emotions that would drive them to that place. 

Now this is where we encounter the major arc of this record: depression. The cause isn't immediately apparent, but there's a miasma of toxic frustration, anger, and numb bitterness that permeates much of the writing - and it's not cool. This is not a record looking to pander much to teenage disaffection so much as take a frank look at what it's doing to everyone around them. And like most teenagers, our protagonist spends the majority of this record running in the opposite direction of his problems, which is where the denial comes in spades - but it's also clear he does have reasons. The looming presence of authority figures like parents and God that stare down disapprovingly are probably a big factor in why he wants to at least pretend that everything is okay, especially when it's hard enough for him to fit in regardless 'cause he's a bit weird in his own way and can't communicate what he wants, which is established very early. Hell, you could argue he can't even really communicate who he is, as 'Not What I Needed' fills the Cars sample with an inverted guitar lead and a sample of a half-heard phone call trying to explain his band and mostly failing - it's not quite as punchy as the original version, but there's poignancy there. And this ties into another major theme very relevant to millennials: the weight of self-obsession, where between internalized expectations, a subsequent dismissal, and a desire to have it all together, it's led to all sorts of reckless experience-chasing to disguise the deeper emptiness within that they don't know how to fill. And so we get acid and mushrooms at the same time, or a desperate drunken trip home, or finding someone else with similar problems to build a connection even if on some level it just feels like masturbation.

Now it definitely feels like there are many points where you could take this as moralizing about my generation - 'Cosmic Hero', for instance, is probably speaking at our protagonist with a healthy dose of 'get over yourself', highlighting how much teenage complaining could be resolved with straightforward thinking, or even just suicide if they're that anxious to cut themselves off from the world. But Toledo is smart enough to realize that millennials have already internalized the 'get over yourself' mantra and it's not the real problem - it's covering up the depression and deep-seated rage that comes with being raised as entitled and then publicly dismissed by a generation who'd prefer to dump on those coming after rather than take responsibilities for their own failures. That's one of the many reasons 'The Ballad of the Costa Concordia' is easily the best song on this record, where the veils are burned away and while our protagonist has no problem admitting our screwups, it also points the finger at a lack of real life guidance, celebrating individual successes to the point of meaninglessness weighed against everyone else, and how all of that might give a generation a complex! It's why the line 'I give up' anchors the chorus - no more masks, no more repression and denial, just acceptance of mortality and that we've been our own worst enemies. And I really appreciate how Toledo ends the album, first with a middle finger to teenage conformity and that navel gazing masturbation isn't just universal, but a sign that maybe no generation has a clue where they're going - and on the final track, with the narrator reaching out to a horse before being pulled away, there's empathy extended on both sides for whatever demons they're battling within.

In short... look, I could go on about the writing all damn day, and how so much of the hook-driven guitarwork will stick in your brain like nothing else, but the larger question is whether it all works. Honestly, it's damn close - as much as I credited the thematic progressions and can excuse a lot of self-indulgence, there are points that do push me. Also - bizarrely - I get the impression Toledo could have ended a fair few of these songs better with a more satisfying chord or structure - there are a few songs I think could have hit harder with a stronger ending. But while I could nitpick on a few instrumental points, like the Mellotron running through the riff of 'Not What I Needed' or the backing vocals not quite working on 'Unforgiving Girl (She's Not An)', for the most part I dug the hell out of this album. For me, extremely strong 8/10 and a high recommendation, but every critic who covers indie rock on the planet has acclaimed this album, so let me put it a different way. If you're looking for one of the smartest, most nuanced, and yet most sincere portrayals of the 'Me Generation' that sure as hell is not catering to anyone, Teens In Denial is required listening. Otherwise... it's great indie rock that only occasionally gets entirely up its ass and pretentious - in other words, worth more a little more than what you bargained, but less than what you paid.

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