Car Seat Headrest, Kentish Town Forum, review: Rock music as it should be

Car Seat Headrest aren’t your typical rock band, and if you wanted an indication as to why, we have one tonight – they’re on stage 10 minutes early. And, quite honestly, we can’t remember the last time a gig started on time, let alone before.

Keen punctuality aside, chief songwriter Will Toledo has carved a reputation with something that really shouldn’t make him stand out from the crowd, but in today’s world, does: the ability to make genuinely exciting rock music. With a string of a lo-fi, self-released albums and EPs dating back to 2010, Toledo signed to Matador records in 2015 and released Teens of Style, a cherry-picked collection of songs from the Bandcamp years, re-recorded onto one album (how many artists can say they started life on a label with what was effectively a Greatest Hits record?). The hooks were plentiful, the songwriting dynamic and the lyrics sullenly introspective, examining his inner self with the same bleary-eyed gaze one uses to look at a two-days-out-of-date ready meal at the back of the fridge.

Teens of Denial, 2016’s follow-up release, really made waves, and it dominates the set, with “Fill in the Blank” setting the tone for the rest of the night. A muddy, trudging intro gives way to thumping beat and Toledo’s lyrics which might seem ironic if it wasn’t for the entirely straight face they emerged from (“If I were split in two I would just take my fists/ So I could beat up the rest of me”). On “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” his delivery is downright indolent, standing motionless and expressionless as he recounts a not-so-transcendental trip, until the snarling crescendo kicks in. Pretty much every one of his guitar solos is performed with his back to the audience, crouched over by the amp, but it’s all part of the appeal – and you wouldn’t expect all smiles and dancing performing an album like this. (On the other hand, Toledo’s touring guitarist Ethan Ives moves and plays like each of his limbs are attached to strings, controlled by a puppeteer with a nervous twitch). 

Toledo has a knack for crafting songs that build and build and build, almost deceptively so, like on “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”, which grows out of sweetly strummed chords and, before you know it, launches into a pounding chorus, with that lo-fi aesthetic of the recorded version replaced by a fist-swinging heaviness here.

There’s time for some interludes, including a surprisingly congruous cover of James Brown’s “I Don’t Mind”  – as Toledo explains beforehand in his trademark mumble, “We throw some stuff in to keep ourselves entertained… and hopefully you’ll be entertained too” – but by and large, this is a rousingly rough and abrasive set. Toledo may be the atypical rock star, but his rock music is exactly what it should be: really bloody loud, and really bloody good.

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