Car Seat Headrest Teens of Denial

[Matador; 2016]

Styles: “Indie Rock,” NME, “New Sincerity”
Others: uhh

“I think of indie in much the same way I think of the term ‘guerrilla.’ It’s more than a simple, surface-level reference to your financial backing. I believe it’s a state of mind and a way of life you must bring to your entire pursuit of music.”
– Bob Baker from his article “The True Meaning of Indie”

“I think ‘indie’ was about romanticizing amateurism in music and media [via ‘blogs’]. But the bands that were actually successful cared about being masters and never really were THAT amateur…Why must we empower people who are trying to convince us that ‘a lo-fi sheen’ is real?”
– Carlos Perez (a.k.a. Carles) in his article with Ezra Koenig, “Was Indie Ever Relevant?”

In a lecture during Berlin Music Week 2014, critic and musicologist Adam Harper spoke of the slow death of the indie aesthetic. He notes that indie was a subculture built around “low-tech” aesthetics, ones that fetishized outdated modes of recording (lo-fi), outdated styles of vintage dress, and outdated ideas of simpler, more innocent times in a more “näive, primitivist, childlike” realm of cultural novelty. He states:

It [indie] is no longer a consequence of its natural mode of production. We can’t even pretend it is anymore. It is now more difficult and more expensive to find and use even low tech analog equipment than to use the phones and laptops that the majority of people in the developed world have access to. Lo-fi is no longer the path of least resistance, but has to be a special and rather expensive performance.

Harper further maligns indie’s passing by noting how the subculture has become a colossal industry, one that “frequently enjoys corporate sponsorship” at multi-million dollar events like Coachella, SXSW, and the plethora of other similar music festivals around the globe. For Harper, the burgeoning industry around the subculture has firmly become “the establishment,” far removed from the amateurism of self-released cassettes and the do-it-yourself vinyl bootlegs upon which the aesthetic was once predicated.

While Harper contrasts the indie aesthetic’s “low-tech” mythos with what he calls “hi-tech aesthetics” — drawing on everything from the internalization of internet accelerationism to 21st-century speculative fiction and the dizzying pop gestures of artists like James Ferraro and PC Music — indie, somehow, against the spin of the critical canon, still thrives. Acts like Mitski, Alex G, Girlpool, Porches, Eskimeaux, Julia Brown, and Frankie Cosmos have all arisen through the scruffy DIY underground, now toward a lineage of labels, venues, and fans once associated with the white bourgeois classes to whom “indie rock” once spoke volumes. These acts have all grown into staggering acclaim, a new dominant cultural order precedented only by an era of optimism for guitar-driven, blog-based bands.

With the infrastructure of “indie” still firmly intact — with bigger “indie” labels of course still having close ties to pressing plants, tour promoters, in-house publicists, etc. — and acts associated with the style pressing further into the rock & roll history books, it seems we’ve reached a strange, new place in rock’s contemporaneity. While the term “New Sincerity” has been thrown around a lot in the literary world — often associated with writers like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Adam Kelly’s probably seminal essay “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” as well as the poetry of Joseph Massey and now-unfashionable texts of Alt Lit figureheads like Tao Lin, Mira Gonzalez, Melissa Broder, and others — I’d go as far as to say that we’ve been seeing something of a “New Sincerity” in indie rock for some time now.

The rise of emo’s “second wind” certainly affirms this, but it’s bigger than that. With a chasm in the space between critical writing on music (in which sites like Tiny Mix Tapes and Pitchfork are certainly participants) and the sorts of actual underground guitar rock that still occupies house shows and small clubs across the world, for a brief, already collapsing period, there was a lapse in the space for guitar shit. Maybe writers were bored with it? Maybe fans lost interest in a style based on amateurism and whimsicality that somewhere ceased to feel very amateur or whimsical at all? Maybe your favorite sites soon realized that it was more lucrative to play fanboy for already-massive acts, with firmly established fan bases that could be easily tracked in monetizable metrics? To help sites — still paid for by ads that everyone blocks anyway — finally pay salaries and make ends meet? Rather than build hype for new acts that they themselves had to moralizingly deem worthy of an audience?

In many ways mirroring Harper’s gestural death of indie (via maturation/commodification), the web finally grew up. The charming unprofessionalism of your favorite underpaid websites somehow became the new normal, with even the most seemingly out-of-touch listeners aware of the latest trends in noise rock or vaporwave, or of the latest Swans record or Morrissey release. The hopeful naivety once associated with blanket unifiers like “indie” finally found its last breath as corporate muzak in the suburban shopping center, in the sprawling Panera Breads and Outback Steakhouses of the global economy, as music sites quietly ascended into professionalism.

But for many kids raised after this bubble, what was there to do? With the intimacy of “indie” and the underground now fully fodder for an exhaustive pop culture trend (and everyone who vaguely “identified” with the style moving on to artier, more progressive styles), was there anything interesting in making guitar-pop again? Beyond major sites now firmly committed to the lowest common denominator and a rapidly-aging fan base of basic-ass normie millennial media people who really only ever wanted to listen to powerchords and self-loathing anyway, well, what was the youth to do?

Car Seat Headrest is the project of Will Toledo. His second album on Matador after a long string of Bandcamp releases and a “victory lap” of a Matador debut, Teens of Denial is the first new material we’ve heard from the band since 2014’s How To Leave Town. After news last week that the act was forced to destroy hundreds of vinyl copies following an uncleared Cars reference on “Just What I Needed/Not What I Needed,” the band’s been hard at work, wringing the chorus of “Just What I Needed” from Ric Ocasek’s frustrating legal team into an extended rework that drops the lyrics for a collage of reversed backing tracks and some scattered, lyrical monotone. Which is a shame because so much of the power of this record (and Toledo’s songwriting in general) lies in its ability to leap through frenzied references in a larger mediation between inside and outside — an intertextual composite of Joyce and Carver nods, crystallized into some semblance of self that was always bound to hit a final wall in copyright laws.

Take “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia.” The thunderous eleven-and-a-half-minute track rolls through the rise and fall of innumerable pounds and pedals to crest with the words:

“I won’t go down with this ship
I will put my hands up and surrender
there will be no more flags above my door
I have lost and always will be”

The track lifts Dido’s familiar chorus, leveraging the songwriter’s words into a new, referential composite. But unlike past releases, Toledo here contorts Dido’s “white flag” and “in love” into “no more flags” and “have lost,” conspicuously channeling his own words through the reference to bring the song into a larger spectral feeling. Pushing forward with canonized history and original statement as one, the track grasps out at timelessness, only to recede back into teenage embitterment — elsewhere, a “walking piece of shit,” a slurred stutter in a larger spiritual transcendence.

Part of why I bring up Wallace and notions of a “New Sincerity” (god knows I’ve tried to avoid boring buzzwords and fluffy pomo fodder thus far) is that, well, behind the mythos of Wallace and his now-canonized talent always lied a larger love for literature and an attempt to suck out the marrow of the works that he loved — to lay bare the internalized lessons of every novel with a new force. If the “New Sincerity” was ever “about” anything (already a massively reductive overgeneralization, I know), the great unifier of the group was the ability to leap through material to build something larger and more emotive from eternal pastiche. In much the same way, Toledo races through an infinite matrix of reference (and even self-reference) to a point beyond collapse, a bold oscillation between snide and sincere that rattles too quickly for words.

Teens of Denial vaults through references to stand alone, rapturous and sincere — a fuzzy framework from the floor of all we know. Built from a fallen lineage that clearly places itself in extension of said classics, the album still impressively avoids didacticism, embracing ideas in subtle rhythm and reference without coming off as trying too hard. Frenzied in possibility, larger than a skinny frame could ever fare on its own, Teens of Denial is, for once, a reflecting pool in a history all its own.

As long as there’s an industry that needs to keep cranking shit out, we’ll always have new rock. As long as sites keep churning out claims and shitty publicists keep peddling them as gold, we’ll always have new heroes — some, granted, more dubious than others, but all heroes in some form nonetheless. Beneath it all, as long as kids keep loving this shit — going to shows, buying merch, obsessing en masse to new iterations of their absolute favorite thing in the world — we’ll keep going in. It’s all it was ever really for: To help funnel passion to those who need it most. To say something big to those who’ll help make it real.

Links: Car Seat Headrest - Matador

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