Banner Photo by Jonah Rosenberg
From the moment he walked on stage, Will Toledo balanced with ease the eternal dichotomy of teenhood: the fact that absolutely nothing matters, and the recognition that every single thing has incredible meaning. With his deadpan stare and low, monotonous voice, he never once takes himself too seriously, and yet you can tell that he means what he’s saying. Toledo is frustratingly sweet; he’s like the adorable nerdy minor character on a ’90s TV show that steals everyone’s heart. Seriously, the man had a sweet, quirky, little tuft of hair sticking up for probably the entire show. Did he know? Is it purposeful? Was he born with it? What does Will Toledo know that I don’t?
I caught his show in Portland’s Wonder Ballroom on Friday night, as I was home for break. When I told my grandma & aunts & uncles at Thanksgiving that the show I was headed to was by Car Seat Headrest, they all patted me on the shoulder and shook their heads with a little smile (much like their reaction to my new, poorly-timed eyebrow piercing.) The unique name of the band comes from the fact that Toledo started out his music career in the family car, apparently near where one rests their head, back in his hometown in Virginia. This was back in 2010, when Toledo was seventeen and consequently full of teen agony, which he transformed into an impressive catalog of music (as in, eleven full albums on BandCamp) in the next few years. He moved to Seattle in 2014 after being signed by Matador Records, recruited a couple band members, and got to work.
His Portland show was opened by The Domestics, whose key quality was that I didn’t mind listening to them while I waited for the main act. Their lead singer had a suspiciously similar haircut to Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, and honestly, the music was kind of a slightly lesser version. The crowd seemed likewise underwhelmed, as noted by the minimal head-nodding. We were all restless in anticipation.
The boys of Car Seat Headrest walked on soon after, nonchalantly, while the crowd bellowed. The four of them—Will Toledo, Andrew Katz, Ethan Ives, and Seth Dalby—each look like your quintessential indie music boy. Without the background of the venue’s lights, it seems like they might fit in better in a Pacific Northwest suburban basement, unassumingly laying around on an old couch, cordially proposing to “jam.”
But this isn’t to say that they didn’t find their footing on this stage, as they exploded into incredible renditions of their hits, “Fill in the Blank” and “Vincent,” to start. The first features an extremely catchy, upbeat guitar riff repeated throughout the song over the top of a narrator, lamenting himself for not “trying hard enough to like it,” and therefore having no right to be depressed. “Vincent” begins with a two-minute-long intro of the same hauntingly wavering chord until Toledo finally half groans, “half the time I want to go home.” He continues with one of his best lyrical lines of the album, “They got a portrait by Van Gogh on the Wikipedia page for clinical depression,” and sighs, “well, it helps to describe it,” over and over till we believe him.
Toledo’s writing is frustratingly witty. It’s difficult to realize quite how intelligent his phrasing is until moments later, after he’s already onto some other clever, earnestly self-deprecating line. He takes us by the hand, kindly sits us down, and confides in us the truths of our deepest self awareness. “I didn’t want you to hear that shake in my voice, my pain is my own,” he says in “1937 State Park.”
He shows us his knowledge of past music legends with numerous covers and samples. He messed around with his own dark version of “Blackstar” by David Bowie. His lead guitarist, Seth Dalby, led the encore with a full cover of a Leonard Cohen tune, and during the finale, they combined their “Connect the Dots” with one of my personal favorites, Patti Smith’s “Gloria.” They are adept at playing their own songs, and they seem to enjoy the challenge of making every show unique in the combination of all these other influences while still keeping their performance as much their own as any one of us lucky audience members’.
My good friend and roommate Julia always insists that the success of a first date can be determined by turning on the song “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” in the car and seeing if they’re singing along by the end. It’s a good theory. The song is about both drunk drivers and killer whales, which is quite the lyrical feat. “It doesn’t have to be like this, killer whale,” in its proper form, hollered out of tune, is possibly one of the most comforting lyrics of music I’ve ever heard. I don’t know why; I don’t know what it is about being referred to as a large aquatic animal that gives me so much contentment. I don’t even think it matters what he’s referring to by ‘this.’ I think it’s got to be something in his low voice, howling both calmly and passionately, as Toledo encourages us to listen to the voices in our head, to get out of the car, and start to walk.
ADRIENNE HOHENSEE | A Content Little Whale | KXSU Music Reporter