If their lyrics give any sense of how tough the ladies of Warpaint are, the Los Angeles quartet aren’t a band so much as they are a gang. Not in the organized crime sense, but in the “don’t mess with us” sense. Case in point: On “Elephants”, the second track on the band’s 2008 debut EP Exquisite Corpse, Warpaint singer/guitarist Emily Kokal declared “I’ll break your heart”. On “Disco//very”, a grinding, disco-damaged track on the band’s sophomore self-titled album, Kokal’s gathered her other three bandmates – guitarist Theresa Wayman, bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg, and drummer Stella Mozgawa – and they’ve upped the stakes: “We’ll kill you,” they boldly declare in the most hauntingly sinister tone that they can muster. Admittedly, “Disco//very” is somewhat of an outlier, both stylistically and lyrically. There isn’t another track nearly as danceable on Warpaint, nor is there one quite as intimidating. However, the “Last Gang In Town” mentality that drives the sorta-posse cut is the album’s rallying idea, an all-for-one attitude that runs through the appropriately eponymous record from its vocal arrangements to its spectral cover artwork. But that’s what Warpaint is: a record that finds the band working as a tightly focused unit, finding new ways of sharpening their performances and songwriting by moving outside their comfort zone and making their best record yet.
Whereas Exquisite Corpse felt like an introduction to a band still finding its identity, The Fool, the band’s 2010 debut full-length, was an impressively focused debut, evoking L.A.’s desert outskirts with its spaced-out tones and Kokal and Wayman’s heady twin-guitar wall of sound. On Warpaint, this L.A. vibe remains, but rather than continuing to create a swirling desert groove, the band have opted to build the record primarily around keyboards, resulting in a record that stirs more of a 3 a.m. Silverlake atmosphere than the Fool’s 3 a.m Laurel Canyon. The band have used keyboards before – most effectively on Exquisite Corpse’s “Billie Holiday” – but not to this extent. Considering that the band’s prior two releases were primarily written by Wayman and Kokal, and that members often swapped instruments during Warpaint’s production, this new songwriting angle notably differs from their past work. Although it certainly wouldn’t have been disappointing to hear another set of subtly haunting, guitar-driven grooves like “Elephants”, “Bees”, or “Undertow”, Warpaint’s playing-before-the-player attitude lends itself to deeper, more nuanced songwriting. It’s hard to imagine songs like the slinkily noir “Hi” or sensual crawl of “Biggy” existing with a prominent guitar line driving them, rather than the rumbling synths that carry them.
Augmenting the band’s newfound love of keyboards is Flood, the English producer/mixer extraordinaire who can now put Warpaint next to PJ Harvey, Depeche Mode, Foals, and quite a few others on his list of artists who have reached new heights under his production. (It should be noted that Radiohead/Beck/Atoms For Peace producer Nigel Godrich mixed two songs on Warpaint, but Flood is responsible for the lion’s share of the deftly subtle mix that creates that album’s sublime aura.) His work behind the boards brings out the best in the band by layering the various elements of each song in a way that makes them instantly isolatable to a listener while still contributing to the song’s overall arrangement. On Foals’ breakout record Holy Fire, Flood put a strong emphasis on the rhythm section, injecting an artful strength into the drums and bass (see: “My Number“, “Milk and Black Spiders“), and he does the same thing here. Mozgawa’s playing style has expanded far beyond the standard snare-kick-tom-crash setup most drummers use, opting for a highly expressive style that favors textural atmosphere over a pulsating rhythm. Likewise, Lindberg’s bass performances are frequently understated, but just as often as magnetic as any other part of a song. Her mellifluous, McCartney-esque basslines often feel like leads that run parallel to Kokal or Wayman’s vocals, countering their melodies while still holding down the rhythm under the echoing waves of “Feeling Alright” or the urgent, romantic “Love Is To Die”.
But despite all of these improvements, the band’s most alluring element remains the chemistry between Kokal and Wayman, whose interplay has primarily shifted mediums from guitar to vocals on Warpaint. On their own, their voices are already a good pairing: Kokal’s is the higher and more commanding of the two; she has more snarl in her performances, but tempers it with a magnetic moan. Conversely, Wayman’s performances often seep in slowly, alternating between a sly coo and a melodic pine with an equally as devastating effect. They’ve sung on top of each other to strong results before (“Warpaint”, “Billie Holiday”), but although they sound good in unison, they sound even better when providing the other with a ghostly counter melody (a skill they displayed on The Fool and have significantly honed here), and their vocal performance is one of Warpaint’s highlights. They’re haunting, evocative, and highly sensual. (Wayman has said the band aimed for Warpaint to be both a more minimalist and sexier record than The Fool; both goals have been achieved.) Augmenting each other with sometimes whispered, sometimes moaned echoes, the pair are the most immediate element of a highly crafted album, but that still means that everything can’t be soaked in during the album’s first spin. Trying to track down each singer’s parts (along with occasional backing from Lindberg and Mozgawa) in the winding “Drive” or the stunning closer “Son” can be a listening experience in and of itself, but its just another puzzle to unlock in a record that asks for a listener’s full attention to truly take in all of its parts.
Unlike Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the other high profile (and excellent) record that shares its release date (yesterday), Warpaint does not grab you by the throat and demand to be heard. It offers to take you by the hand, slowly leading you inside its cavernous, alluring songwriting, and while this slowly revealing process works well for most of the songs, occasionally the band’s songwriting is too sparse, losing itself in its dense production and occasionally preventing good performances from being truly great. (The main culprits here are “Go In” and, to a lesser extent, “Teese”, but there are lagging sections in most of the songs.) But that’s a small trifle, and overall, the album’s thick production and carefully crafted songwriting work with the band’s new style. (It’s also worth noting that the minimalist elements may work better in a live setting, where the band – who have been a formidable live act for a few years now – can let them expand into jams.) Warpaint is an album that rewards repeat listens, gradually drawing its curtains to reveal its craftsmanship, but also a band who have not only significantly expanded their toolbox and already figured out how to get the most out of their new approach. It may not grab you on the first listen, but it’s not trying to. Warpaint is a deeply rewarding record that, over multiple spins, shows that Warpaint are more united, more captivating, and more formidable than ever.