Warpaint - Heads Up

by Billy Brooks

Warpaint floated eerily into the spotlight with their debut EP Exquisite Corpse and subsequent first album The Fool in the late 2000s, using a combination of reverbe-psychedelica and paranoid powerhouse beats to propel memorable dream pop and rock songs to exciting places. Indeed, the group was impressive enough to catch the eye of John Frusciante of Red Hot Chilli Peppers as well as the mass music media at home and here in the UK. I remember seeing Warpaint playing the John Peel tent at Glastonbury in 2011. I was blown away by their sheer musicality, their vivacious style, and their punctuality. They ended up being an unexpected highlight of the weekend for many, which was no mean feat considering the presence that weekend of The XX, Yuck, Elbow, Morrissey and Paul Simon. Their set included such favourites as Bees, Undertow, and a version of Elephants that dissolved into a dreamy prog pop jam at the end of the show. At the time, every journalist on the planet seemed annoyingly unable to write an article that didn’t convey some unprecedented degree of surprise that not only were they all female but they were all talented and beautiful as well – as if women couldn’t have all these properties at once. Riot Grrrl anyone?

Anyway, their second, eponymous release gathered a lot of hype but failed to deliver to the same extent as their first album. Their sound felt watered down and lacked in the kind of concrete vocal and instrumental hooks that attracted fans to their initial work. However, they have returned to form triumphantly with Heads Up, which feels like a more natural development for them into danceable, yet musically engaging, complex material. Jenny’s thrumming bass and the interplay between the Cure-esque guitarists, Theresa and Emily, are as compelling as anything from The Fool, and needless to say for any fans of the band, Stella’s drumming is, well, stellar.

The album begins with Whiteout, which uses a rhythmically interesting composition to pin down a mysterious lyric. “You wouldn’t know it, but you’re really in your prime/ you’re running out of time” croons Emily in blank harmony with Theresa. Is this a reflection on their disappointing second release? I can’t say with any certainty, but it’s awesome nonetheless. Track two, By Your Side, features the album’s first explicit foray into use of the drum machine, used to manipulate time changes in the opening bar, dislocating the band from the listener as if to say “you can’t sit with us”. Track three is perhaps the highlight of the album and has already been floating around for a while – New Song features thickly layered vocals and reverb heavy guitars over a tight rhythm backing. It uses a sweeping musical metaphor to communicate the exhilaration of meeting someone new. It is not as musically or lyrically impenetrable as classics like Shadows or Elephants, but it’s far from dull. This seems to sum up the album as a whole for the most part. It’s as if they went into the studio to record Heads Up with someone whispering to them, “it’s spelled C-H-O-R-U-S”.

This is not to say that they sound totally alien compared to previous releases – just that they’ve instilled their signature sound with a welcome modicum of pop sensibility to counterbalance Theresa’s visceral guitar, the dreamy, outer-space vocals, and the tight, busy rhythms. The Stall, Don’t Wanna, and By Your Side seem to represent Warpaint as imagined by Warpaint, in fact; These feel like the songs they’ve wanted to write all along.