With ominous bass and soft drums, Car Seat Headrest started their headlining set at Johnny Brenda's on Sunday night with low-key confidence via the moody and atmospheric "The Ending of Dramamine - How to Leave Town," in which an opening repeating structure was soon joined by contemplative guitar. Sharp, recurring notes began to dance like a candle urged by subtle currents before they turned bluesy, the drum rolled, and the song shifted, still tight and compact - clinical, amid an expansive jam feel that coolly returned to that soft, minimalist beginning.
CSH, which recently signed with Matador, is the project of Will Toledo of Seattle, who, like Philly's Alex G, built a following through Bandcamp. Singer/front man Toledo delivered vocals in the style of someone who waits well into a party to say something, his somber though never too dour voice turning droll:
I don't hate myself
I tolerate myself
I wish I was someone else
but it seems too stupid to mention
I know I'll be ripped in heaven.
His soulful woe heightened the track's cinematic feel, his voice bearing shades of Ian Curtis, both mired in and transcending sorrow: "I can't hear a thing now / I guess I belong to me now." Again, foreboding bass sounded against sparse drum work, the guitar soaring up and away as the track came to a close at around 12 minutes. The track's craftsmanship and loose yet solid foundation places it up there with recent stunning Philly performances by Television of its "Marque Moon" and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic of their "Maggot Brain."
Throughout the gig, Toledo made lyrical asides reminiscent of the National's Matt Berninger. A case in point was "Times to Die" (off 2012's Monomania): "All of my friends are getting married . . . All of my friends are making money / But art gets what it wants and art gets what it deserves." The chorus - "We've all had better times to die" - is a strangely feel-good moment.
On the third track in, "America (Never Been)" from 2014's How to Leave Town, Toledo channeled Beck amid plangent guitar as the song morphed into something else entirely as drummer Andrew Katz took to electronic drums. This track and others gave glimpses of the Boss as the music charged ahead, but Toledo was after a send-up of Springsteen Americana. He knew how to have fun.