Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)

For his 2015 Matador Records coming out party, Will Toledo updated the quasi-greatest hits from Car Seat Headrest’s self-released catalog and packaged them as Teens of Style. Missing from this collection were any tracks from Twin Fantasy, his 2011 opus that many longtime fans consider his masterwork. It took a few more years to understand why.

Even before signing with Matador Toledo had reportedly pitched the label on a Twin Fantasy revisit, and after establishing Car Seat Headrest as a force to be reckoned with on 2016’s Teens of Denial, he took it back to the workshop. It’s a curious choice – it’s awfully early to be reaching into the vault rather than peppering the world with new material. But it also happens to be a great one.

The entirety of Twin Fantasy can nearly be summed up – both musically and topically – by its brilliant second entry, the 13-minute “Beach Life-in-Death.” Not to get high-minded about it but “Beach Life” is essentially a fully realized guitar-fueled lo-fi suite, with multiple movements and returns to variations on a theme – I could honestly imagine it being used as an example in a music composition class. Lyrically it’s a meta-coming out story, as Toledo talk-sings “I never came out to my friends/ we were on Skype/ and I laughed and changed the subject.” There are more invigorating ideas crammed into this one track that you’ll find on many worthwhile full albums.

Twin Fantasy’s high points are every bit as high as Teens of Denial’s. Also situated on this list is “Bodys,” with which Car Seat opened many sets on its Style tour – a ballsy move, leading with an unknown six-minute song when trying to establish a new band (it worked, by the way). To my earlier Ray Davies Toledo comparisons I’m now adding “Paul Westerberg if he had grown up sooner” – although this may be overly influenced by “Sober To Death,” which reminds me of The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied.”

Rather than disavowing prior versions of the album, Matador has actually bundled physical copies of Twin Fantasy (Face to Face) with the self-released original, in identical track order. There aren’t many precedents for this conceit – then again, until five years ago artists couldn’t build an audience and an entire Bandcamp catalog without a label’s help. The closest parallel I can think of is John Cale, who re-imagined his own Music for a New Society thirty-plus years after the fact.

Actually, “re-imagined” isn’t the proper term because Toledo hews quite close to the original. The biggest change on the new Fantasy is the smoothing out of his vocals. “Nervous Young Inhumans,” another standout, inherits an early ’80s percussion effect that reminds me of XTC. And the two marathon tracks have grown longer – which is one of my only knocks on this record. The merely so-so “Famous Prophets” already tested its limits at ten minutes. Now clocking in at sixteen, it well overstays its welcome.

Toledo clearly paid close attention to Steve Fisk’s studio regimen during Teens of Denial – he handles production duties himself this time and delivers a fuss-free mix, adding subtle touches like the organ on “Sober To Death.” In hindsight the original Twin Fantasy now sounds like well fleshed-out demos. I could envision some zealots preferring the earlier version, but I can’t see many taking umbrage with the enhancements, either.

Actually, there’s one qualifier to my earlier “none of Twin Fantasy made it onto Teens of Style” point. Astute listeners will notice the opening lines of “Sunburned Shirts” (Style’s opener) on Fantasy’s closing title track. It was Twin Fantasy doing the borrowing in this case, however, from a Car Seat Headrest album posted earlier in 2011. Toledo’s already been playing this self-referencing game for some time. And while I’d love to hear some truly new Car Seat Headrest material, it’s awfully hard to take issue when the re-purposing is handled this well.

Car Seat Headrest
Twin Fantasy
[Matador]