Los Angeles foursome Warpaint embraces musical collaboration with a charming sense of playfulness that feels refreshing given the indie world’s overt knack for pretension. While bands like the National and Grizzly Bear produce prim, bowtie n’ cardigan pop intended for only the most dedicated listeners, Warpaint eschews “integrity” in favor of cheeky fun, sometimes an alien concept to the most avid children of Pitchfork. In a video interview with NME, amid vocal noodling and inside jokes, Warpaint revealed its “anniversary” as Valentine’s Day 2004, and as if to further convince us of just how much these chicks care about each other, the bassist and drummer lovingly clung together, exchanging knowing glances and childish hand gestures like a pair of inseparable sisters. Fortunately, the love this group shares translates into its music, along with the trust, anxiety, devotion, rivalry, laughter, and jealousy characteristic of any sisterly relationship.
Warpaint is one of the newest contributors to a rising genre of smoky, atmospheric electro-pop, following in the footsteps of contemporaries like Zola Jesus, Bat For Lashes, Fever Ray, and the xx. However, while the aforementioned artists deliberately leave their melancholic gloom empty for reverberated melodies to lean on negative space, Warpaint takes an important step back and approaches songwriting as an overburdened stream of consciousness. The result is beautifully uncertain, often hectic, but always tempered just enough to give the girls’ complementing voices some necessary breathing room.
The band released its first EP, Exquisite Corpse, in 2009, signing to Rough Trade records and welcoming drummer Stella Mozgawa in the process. The EP incited enough buzz in the indie community to garner the band a spot opening for the xx, as well as a decisive appearance at this year’s Lollapalooza music festival. After experiencing what might be described as “blog overkill,” Warpaint finally released its debut album, The Fool, last Tuesday. A tight collection of enigmatically captivating songs, the record may not carve any dramatic new space with its sedated, moody pop, but unexpected touches and a novel approach are definitely too inspired to ignore.
“Set Your Arms Down” opens The Fool with a lone bass introducing its bare, muted refrain before a hesitant beat awakens the song. In the distance, an ethereal female voice seems to wheeze in and out of tune and in and out of consciousness before Theresa Wayman’s seductive soprano creeps in, breathing a hazy sexual flame into the emptiness. “You want to fight me / you want to fight,” she murmurs, but her voice is too comatose to deliver the line like a challenge. Instead, she sings invitingly as hypnotic guitar tones fall into the slowly boiling ambiance like warm raindrops. As the song floats further and further into confusion, Wayman’s voice gradually swells with desperation until a driving bass, far more confrontational than before, overtakes her as she wails the last refrain. The remaining half of the song unfolds with the rhythm section at the forefront, pushing past sprinkled bursts of guitar and vocal harmonies to an exhausted ending.
The drugged-out uncertainty of “Set Your Arms Down” fortunately dictates the tone for the rest of the album, and as a result, hardly any song feels predictable. “Warpaint” swirls ominous lullabies through a series of meticulously arranged sonic vignettes, each of which feels like a different moment in an overly reverberated jam session. Eventually, the vocals seem to take second priority to the complex interplay between guitar, bass, and drums. On the way to mastering dream-pop, Warpaint has found some necessary tastes of prog-rock that surprisingly suit its secluded sound.
“Undertow,” easily the most accessible song on the record, bounces hazily along a perfectly harmonized melody that feels hollow enough for one to think the song was recorded underwater. A drum-machine beat and jittery guitars drive “Bees” into hauntingly impulsive swells of instrumentation that heighten an overwhelming sense of fear before eventually self-destructing. “Shadows” opens and closes with what seems like an acoustic guitar, whose slightly out-of-tune twangs persist as the song veers from calm to chaotic.
What makes The Fool so enthralling is its constant sense of foreboding and its ability to resist definition. My attempts to capture in words every twist and turn that occurs in the first half of the album alone feels strangely insufficient. The fact is, Warpaint packs its songs with too much oddity and mystery for words alone. Take “Composure,” for instance, which layers a chant of disembodied children’s voices over a swaying beat for only a minute before a funky bass refrain takes hold of the song. Even on the lush, acoustic sentimentality of “Baby,” Warpaint never quite lets the listener relax, filling the atmosphere with one too many voices for comfort.
In the end, Warpaint separates itself from its gothic-electro contemporaries through engaging, confrontational, and often assaultive songwriting. The Fool never once resigns itself to predictability, and as a result, the album continues to mesmerize for listen after listen.