in Compare/Contrast

Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy / Superchunk – What A Time To Be Alive

I’d like to think that indie rock is in a place where there are no strict rules as to what constitutes indie rock, or for that matter what constitutes “good” indie rock. Namely, because there just aren’t as many indie artists that fall into the “rock” category that seem to have the same cultural caché as 10 years ago. But also because we’re living in a time where those kinds of labels have been thoroughly blown over, while musical diversity tends to be rewarded. Though you could easily make the case that many of the big indie artists of the ’80s (as well as the ’00s) were marked by their musical eclecticism.

That said, there are still a number of bands these days that fit into that classic sound we usually associate with indie rock, and Car Seat Headrest is undoubtedly one of them. Armed with a kind of detached sarcasm combined with plenty of sneaky earnestness and a hooky guitar-driven sound, Car Seat Headrest is clearly the heir apparent to bands like Pavement or Guided By Voices. And yet, lead singer/songwriter Will Toledo also seems to have an affinity for rock’s more bombastic eras (namely the ’70s), in which there was nothing wrong with writing 10 minute songs that bend and bleed all over the place.

This doesn’t seem to be a recent development, seeing as Car Seat Headrest’s latest opus, Twin Fantasy, is an album Toledo first recorded as a 19-year-old college student in 2011, and uploaded to bandcamp to the acclaim of his more devout online followers. I’ll be forthcoming in admitting I haven’t heard the original Twin Fantasy, just the newer version released last month, in which Toledo re-recorded the album with a full band, and apparently pushes the scope a little further (it runs 10 minutes longer than the original album).

But what I can say about Twin Fantasy (Face To Face) is that it’s another testament to Toledo’s ability to pack his songs with so many ideas (lyrically and musically), but also without feeling like he’s overloading you with information. These songs peak and valley, and give the listener time to breath, but while also giving you emotional catharsis in moments where you least expect it. I won’t even get into the album’s recurring motif of lyrics depicting a relationship between a young man and an older man, but there’s a lot here. And I’m guessing there’s so much here because Toledo had the unprecedented idea of attacking this material for a second time, when he had even more on his mind.

I bring up how peculiar it is for an artist to be revisiting their old material, because I think there is this idea that “looking back” is always a hacky impulse in really any artistic medium, but especially in indie rock. Apart from their various Merge reissues, this has never really been a problem for Superchunk, whose latest album What A Time To Be Alive, finds the band sounding as vital as ever. The album’s title (and title track) is an obvious allusion to the utterly bizarre times we’re living through right now. And the album does feel a bit more political or punk-y than anything they’ve done since the early ’90s, though like any great punk record, it makes the political personal and vice versa.

Comparing both Twin Fantasy and What A Time To Be Alive got me thinking about the relative dumb-ness of indie rock labels, because in an earlier time, these records would seem to be at odds with each other. What A Time is clearly taking the more concise, direct route in getting it’s message through, as every song is around 2 or 3 minutes, and the album as a whole barely cracks the 30-minute mark. Meanwhile, Twin Fantasy, an album that shares many of Superchunk’s sonic textures, is more than double the length, and yet feels just as true to its own ambitions.

Though I suppose if there’s one thing tying these albums together, other than their connections to indie rock’s 90s heyday, it’s that they’re both pushing against something. Hard. With Twin Fantasy, it’s pushing lyrically against the limits of modern love, while musically pushing against the preconceived limitations of the modern rock song. Meanwhile, What A Time To Be Alive sees Superchunk pushing not only against the societal darkness that seems to be encompassing us, but also the preconceived notions of what a band should sound like while heading into middle age. And in the end, they both paint a picture of what it takes for a band to sound truly alive, whether deep into their career, or just at the beginning.