Published Sep 20, 2016Car Seat Headrest are living two careers at once. On one hand, the band are two albums deep into what seems to be a prosperous deal with Matador, the stalwart record label home to Pavement and Yo La Tengo. On the other, the project has a dozen albums to its name, most of which were churned out by mastermind Will Toledo while he was in high school and college, and released on Bandcamp to a small yet devoted following.
For their second appearance in Toronto, Toledo and co. did what they could to give the hungry audience the best of both worlds: the set was dominated by the tracks from their Matador records, Teens of Style and Teens of Denial, but with scrappy, garage rock arrangements to sate the project's lo-fi diehards.
Clearly, the label signing hasn't affected Toledo's DIY, off-the-cuff sensibilities — a minute into set opener "Way Down," a new, unreleased track featuring a solo Toledo on guitar, he forgot the words. He immediately decided to abandon ship, instead ushering his band onstage and launching into "Cosmic Hero" from Teens of Denial, a move that brought much fanfare from the adoring young crowd. Though his banter was brief (drummer Andrew Katz did most of the talking), the suit-clad singer embodied David Byrne in-song, writhing and jamming out sporadically.
Without the studio version's horns, the Dinosaur Jr.-esque guitars were emphasized in "Cosmic Hero." Toledo's material is a dense, referential web a la Destroyer and the Hold Steady, and his live show was no different: botched segue notwithstanding, the opening number featured at least three different Car Seat tracks stitched together. Top that off with an early cover of David Bowie's "Blackstar," and it was clear that Toledo and his band are keen pop deconstructionists, constantly looking to fit each work within a larger context, and actively highlighting any connections they find.
A maximalist thinker with a minimalist setup, Toledo's live show is a springboard for experimentation now that the album recording process has become more bureaucratic, allowing the band to work and rework their tracks now that they can't just re-upload a new version on Bandcamp every time they have a post-release breakthrough.
While no performer is to blame, sound issues pervaded the entire night — bass and feedback drowned out the voice of opening act and recent VP nominee Tim Kaine cosign Lucy Dacus (though, despite the shoddy mix, it was still chilling when her slowcore tunes evolved into Low-esque breakdowns) — but Car Seat did the best with what they had, thanks to the pared-down arrangements that emphasized their sharp, poppy hooks. It also doesn't matter how bad the mix is if the audience is singing loudly to every word.
And sing loudly they did, in reverence to Toledo and his tunes. Toledo's lyrics, filled with relatable yet idiosyncratic metaphors for love and heartbreak, just beg to be sung in a sweaty crowd of people, and so they were. Car Seat Headrest is less about technicality and more about the vulnerability of proffering your heart for someone — anyone — to hold. Nearly every song turned into a heartwarming sing-along, save for Twin Fantasy standout "Sober to Death," which seemed to be less familiar to the crowd. While the setlist was heavy on the Matador tunes, a full-band version of Twin Fantasy acoustic ditty "Stop Smoking" proved that there's still more life to be breathed into the older tracks.
Playing to throngs of new devotees while also making sure not to lose longtime fans, Car Seat Headrest continue to toe the line between their bedroom pop origins and arena rock ambitions.