Music Reviews

Warpaint Warpaint

(Rough Trade) Rating - 5/10

For many, Warpaint made a fairly big first impression with their single Undertow, a breezy, summery track that, like its title suggested, had something going on underneath, its low bass rumble and accusatory refrain undercutting the sweet, slightly C86ish, vocals and jangling guitars, like gingham fabric stitched in gothic black.

Possibly it might have made too much of an impression, as while The Fool, the album that swiftly followed, though warmly received, has lost some of its original fervor as time has passed.  No matter how much the beautifully woozy offerings were replayed, they never really seemed to come into focus or provide the warmth (albeit one with a slight chill running through it) of that single, and more and more of the conversations around the band (anecdotally speaking at least) seemingly skipped over the album to jump to the consolatory conclusion that "they’re really a great live band, though".

And indeed, they were/are. While their stage presence made them come across as even more insular - directing their energies more among themselves rather than at the audience as they launched into extended guitar-offs - the spindly creations found on The Fool were expanded out in all directions that, while still a bit remote, played a lot less like background music. 

So, three and a bit years later - a dangerously long time to leave the follow-up to a much hyped debut – the Californian quartet are back, and hopefully they’ve brought a more substantial effort with them to justify that wait. 

If the botched false start of Intro is anything to go by (sidenote: has there ever been a bit of studio fuck-uppery deliberately left on an album that’s not seemed a bit pointless?), they're striving for that dreadful sense of "authenticity" on this enterprise, the eponymous title might well have been deployed to suggest that this is the "real" them. (On the other hand, they have always been fairly economical, and incredibly inscrutable when it comes to names.) Things, thankfully, settle into a more pleasing groove in second track, Keep it Healthy - which features one of the album’s stronger vocals, occasional stabs of guitar reverb rubbing against a central spiraling riff and nervous tic(k)s of percussion - but then it all goes a bit off the rails again in Love is to Die, with its insipid pontificating and more than a few bum notes, suggesting that Warpaint is going to be a bit of a tricky prospect to work out.

Perhaps the record that it most resembles is The Horrors’ Primary Colours, the last "difficult second album" from a hotly-tipped gothic-tinged act. Both bands had the hard task of trying to overcome the sense of hype and inevitable disappointment surrounding their debut, and the fact that a worrying amount of discussion about them focused on their image and connections. And both have translated this newfound seriousness of intent as meaning an artfully blurred cover shot of the band and more electronics. However, while The Horrors' effort represented such a leap in songwriting quality from their fairly ropey debut that it saw a widely derided band become elevated to arguably being one of the most forward thinking guitar acts around today, Warpaint have the perhaps harder task of just improving on a record that was perfectly fine, if a little underwhelming

In a sense they manage that - there’s a lighter, airier feel in the production compared to the murk of their debut, the electronics are well-utilised, particularly in the pleasingly thick stabs of synth that form Biggy’s backbone, and new styles are flirted with, as in the almost dub-like Hi, which provides further evidence to suggest that Jenny Lee Lindberg holds far more of an influence in the band than the average bass player (as does her husband Chris Cunningham being persuaded to end his recent period of enigmatic elusiveness to provide artwork and behind-the-scenes footage; it’s good to have him back).

But as a whole it's still a bit flimsy. You get the impression that they've spent most of the past few years just focusing on what they were already good at - honing their live act through constant touring (understandably), allowing Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman’s guitars to delicately chime off each other, trying to get that ‘something Factory records would have released in the early 80s’ bass sound - rather than addressing any of the more serious problems. Even worse, at points you wonder if they’ve actually taken a step back from where they were with The Fool; the gang vocals of the earlier LP’s Composure had a youthful charm about them, while Disco//very’s nonsensical yells of “I make room for everyone/I. Need. To. Take. A. Break!” just lodge in the head in the most irritating fashion (and the track is the latest to add to the long long list of bands unsuccessfully flirting with puns). 

Like the super-impositions of the cover art, there’s nothing solid here (other than that all-pervasive bass-line), which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the general feeling of ethereal politeness does rather expose the moments - most egregiously found in Drive’s declaration that “I’m your lucky charm” - where the vocals strain uncomfortably outside of Kokal/Wayman’s comfort range; it’s only really the lascivious “Give me more” of CC that summon a sufficient sense of urgency to justify the lapses into flatness. 

Warpaint are very much an Ikea act, not that that’s meant as a dig at their potential audience (if there’s one thing music criticism doesn’t need any more of, it’s middle-class self-parody, well, that and the patronising “they’re girls, but they play guitars!” attitude that plagued a lot of the early buzz about the band, and sadly that of so many before and after them), but rather as both are in the puzzling position of frequently pulling off genuine style and sophistication, but occasionally slipping up on the absolute basics. And both have a very weird approach to naming things.