concert review: Out The Car Window

Written by Ryan Doyle Elward


Out the Car Window began their set at Empty Bottle late into the night on December 18 with “Junk DNA," introduced by snare and cymbal, and punctuated by single, reverberant notes flowing into folds of warm, robust distortion. The song lands just under three minutes before transitioning seamlessly into “Elijah,” continuing much of the same momentum, urged forward by percussion.


Their sound speaks to cold, crowded rooms, enlivening a feeling of unity behind the noise. 

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” said guitarist Matt Carlton, while discussing the bitter cold that accompanies many months of the year in Chicago, and the shared identity that the band feels is created by the constraints of the daunting season.


Offering credit to this claim, there is something in their nature that is ‘folk’ as a representation of their environment, more so than whatever ‘folk’ is as a matter of sound. Rather an embodiment of the themes and landscape existing around the artist than any character of instrumentation.


Chicago provides this scenery to draw from, and the place where Out the Car Window was formed – also where three of the four members currently attend Columbia College for disciplines separate from music. Lead vocalist and guitarist Jake Wahlen studies poetry, and is also responsible for choosing their band name at random from a line of a Charles Bukowski poem. Carlton pursues literature, and percussionist Griffin Taylor business. Bassist Mitch Nickolaou follows a path necessary to garner skills as a piano technician. 


Adding all of the pieces together, their sound doesn’t readily present itself as a genre cleanly, and leaves difficulty in describing their sound. And while sitting at the confluence of several categories of music, chiefly speaking, the four share grounding in the style and technique of jazz, and an affinity for mid 1960’s folk. Notably the change that occurred between ‘64 and ‘65, most visibly at the Newport Folk Festival of the latter year in the historic moment where Bob Dylan chose electric over acoustic.

Considering this medley of choices, a kind of ‘scholar rock’ seems a deserving label. Having a studious quality, where, even in the fuzziest of songs there exists refinement.


“We are very aware of how each other sits in the mix,” Wahlen said.

Through the middle of their set a pace is established, halting with little breaks inside of songs where energy can build for a moment and then collide back into the whole with heft and wobble, balancing weight and girth with emerging brightness.


Perhaps opposite normal expectations, the band feels they in fact struggle to translate certain favored elements of their live presence into the context of a recording studio.


“We’ve been playing together live, for, you know, a while . . . The first things we put out were kind of bare . . . For our next recordings we’re trying to make sure our ‘oomph’ is represented,” said Taylor.


Out the Car Window is an eager bunch, their excitement genuine and refreshing. A sense of immense appreciation is evident in their own telling of time spent at renowned studio Electrical Audio during drum and bass tracking, where they’ll say that credentialed owner and engineer Steve Albini “has a good handshake.”

“Good Things” concludes the performance, retaining all of the same punch and articulation from the studio recording, but with the added effect of explosiveness in a live show. All the dramatic, dragging vocals, which hang just before a bright chord bursts above labored drums. A peculiar clarity circumscribes this song in particular, in sound and story, a prophetic beginning for the group. But this is actually where they began, with “Good Things” being among their earliest written, and said to have developed on stage over the period of a few years.


“[“Good Things”] . . . has turned into something we didn’t expect it to,” Wahlen said. 


And maybe that's the token exactly, all expectation thrown out. So to say, to make crowning songs like “Good Things.” The currency of innovation is patience and determination, and experimentation unmatched. 


That said, in abiding the crucible of time, their future holds nothing less than great prospect.


Listen to Out the Car Window's album Honestly, Fair here: 

Contact Ryan by email at All photos courtesy of Ryan Doyle Elward.