One of the great lies of education is that group work somehow prepares you for life on the outside. Plenty of people thrive in their careers while also working alone. But at a certain point, your situation changes, and you suddenly require colleagues to do your job. In 2016, Car Seat Headrest went from a solo project by Will Toledo to a full band and Making a Door Less Open shows how he and the band are still navigating that change with an album of modern rock that reaches back to Toledo’s solitary past.
Toledo’s band-less Car Seat output, broadly speaking, was a stew of poorly mixed guitars, smudged vocals, and lovely songs. There was always a rock energy, but one of the many charms of the albums was that Toledo created that rock band sound out of the ether. And I suspect that’s the attraction for many solo artists: the ability to have a band that does anything and everything you ask and then disappears when you’re done. It’s the reality of the human co- working condition. But for Toledo it was also a practical choice; he was was self-releasing albums onto Bandcamp while still in college. A full band doesn’t necessarily fit under your dorm bed.
But in 2016 Car Seat Headrest signed to Matador and with that they became a band. Teens of Style, their 2018 Matador debut was a compilation giving some solo Toledo tracks the band treatment. That album kept much of Toledo’s mud, but also mixed in loud drums and guitars. Teens of Denial, the group’s first album of band originals, was more rock oriented, with nods to punk and the Pixies, the main constant being Toledo’s voice, which mixes the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas brattiness with the Killers’ Brandon Flowers larger-than-life confidence.
The band’s history helps to frame Making a Door Less Open, which was recorded in two parts: one as band and the other electronically, under the name 1 Trait Danger, the latter being a side project between Toledo and his drummer, Andrew Katz. This writing/recording process actually brings Toledo closer back to his solo roots, with the result an album of straight-forward modern rock that’s driven by rock beats and Toledo’s voice, with an interesting mix of standard rock instrumentation plus the usual synth flourishes.
Making a Door Less Open, at its best recalls Talking Heads. “Weightlifters” especially nails the sound, with Toledo’s speaking/singing/rapping vocal as sharp and percussive as any drum hit. The random jackhammers of sound, like someone in your building suddenly deciding to hang pictures at 3 in the morning, offsets what, at it’s core, is an incredibly danceable beat. “Famous” has Talking Heads notes, too, a vast sea of synth with Toledo working a surprisingly shy and conciliatory vocal tone.
The thing about a band/project like Car Seat Headrest is that Toledo is so prolific, his sound is constantly evolving. Toledo made nine records before hooking up with a band. And even as a band, he’s constantly revisited his previous work, such as on Teens of Style, but also via Twin Fantasy (Face to Face), which re-recorded 2011’s Twin Fantasy with a full band. So while Making a Door Less Open feels more mature and commercial than previous releases, it also feels like the next step on a trajectory as Toledo balances the control of solo work against the chaos, and responsibilities, of a band.
Steven Ovadia (@steven_ovadia)