It’s been a little while since we last heard from Warpaint. Four calendar years have passed since the Los Angeles quartet’s critically acclaimed debut, The Fool, was a buzzed-about blog favorite, and it’s been two years since the band did any significant, non-festival-based touring. That’s a long time to test the attention spans of an online indie music community that thrives on shouting “First!” about the next big thing. With Pitchfork still including the announcements of imminent release dates of the debut albums of bands you’ve never heard of in their “news” column, will the indie music criterati still care about a band that hasn’t been a “next big thing” since mid-2011? That’s a question for the hipster crowd as well as the “God, I hate hipsters!” crowd to answer, I suppose.
Philosophical musings aside, Warpaint is certainly an interesting way to follow up The Fool. It’s an album that’s still recognizably from the same band, but many of the sonic elements they choose to emphasize this time out are very different. The record opens with a blown take, as a wash of guitar drone and a cool drum groove are quickly interrupted by a shout of “Ahh! Sorry.” Drummer Stella Mozgawa clicks the band back in, bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg locks into the groove with her, and guitarists Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal play, respectively, that drone and a simple melody. The blown take is just about the only moment of levity on the record, as the rest of “Intro”, with its atmospheric, minor key slice of low rock, is much more indicative of what the band is going for with the album.
“Intro” stops and “Keep It Healthy” starts, but it turns out that the former is likely just a short jam on the same basic idea of the latter. The drumbeat, bassline, and guitar melody in “Keep It Healthy” are all very close to what they were in “Intro”, at least until Kokal’s singing starts. While Kokal’s ethereal vocals and the rest of the band’s harmonies provide a compelling melody to the song, it’s really the rhythm section’s groove combined with the simple guitar riff that drives “Keep It Healthy.” Third track and first single “Love Is to Die” mines similar territory, as Mozgawa’s stick clicks push the opening of the song. Then she immediately locks in to Lindberg’s bassline once she starts playing her kit. That solid-as-a-rock rhythm section once again allows the vocal melody to float prettily over the top of the song without having to be particularly hooky. The band throws in another just-catchy-enough guitar line to fill things out and Warpaint starts sounding like it’s going to be a smashing collection of dark, rhythmic rock that is neither guitar nor vocal driven.
The excellent slow burn and hip-hop inspired beat of “Hi” does nothing to change this impression, although it does trade in guitar atmospherics for synth atmospherics. But after these cohesive opening four tracks, Warpaint begins to fly off in a bunch of different directions. “Biggy” is almost six minutes of slow, simple drums and a catchy low register synth riff. The dreamy vocals and gauzy harmonies keep the song from getting repetitive, as does the late switch to a high-register synth riff. Along the same lines is “Go In”, with features a rudimentary bassline combined with simple piano chords and light percussion with cooing, fluttering vocals and a guitar that quietly doubles the melody.
Other tracks find the band experimenting with acoustic guitar textures (the quiet “Teese”), piano ballads (the sad, longing closer “Son”), and synth-pop (the moody, chirpy “Drive”). All of these are worthwhile expansions of the band’s sound, but more interesting is a track like “Disco//very.” Mozgawa’s beat is essentially straight-up mid-tempo disco, but Lindberg’s slinky minor key bassline is way more menacing than most disco songs. Meanwhile, the vocals find the band chanting as much as singing, often in oddball nontraditional harmonies. It’s a genuinely disconcerting track that’s also completely compelling.
When the band gets back around to emphasizing its rock instruments on a pair of songs late in the album, the results are intriguing. “Feeling Alright” comes off sounding like an inspired update of the Sneaker Pimps’ mid-‘90s hit “Six Underground” minus the trip-hop tropes. “CC” is filled with oppressive guitar and synth sounds and layered vocals with a creepy refrain of “Give me more / Give me more / Give me more, I haven’t done this before.”
Warpaint is an album that avoids the inevitable sophomore slump accusations because the band isn’t trying to replicate that first album. A lot of the songs on The Fool had been gestating since the early days of the band in the mid-00s. This album is the first time that all of the band members have worked together on creating songs, and it makes a significant difference in their sound without disturbing the band’s core.