Review Summary: You wouldn’t know it, but you’re really in your prime
Los Angeles’s Warpaint has always seemed to know what kind of band they want to be. Even their debut album, The Fool
, despite its slightly shoddy production, felt like the band playing off their strengths to great effect. With the addition of Stella Mozgawa on drums, they finalized their lineup and eschewed the tonal frills that were apparent on their first EP, Exquisite Corpse
whether it was the folksy sound of ‘Billie Holiday’ (complete with lyrics taken straight from Macy Wells’ ‘My Guy) or the edgy noise that was on ‘Elephants’. Ever since then, they’ve only refined their signature hazy sound, enlisting increasingly talented producers (including Nigel Godrich for sections of their self-titled Warpaint
, whose credits include most every Radiohead work of the last twenty years), helping to refine their sound into something completely unique.
The opener to Heads Up
, ‘Whiteout’ kicks off the album powerfully; it’s a dynamically perfect song that gives the album an immediate energy that the band only occasionally shows. The vocal performance on the song builds from front to back and dominates the track completely (showcasing Emily’s improved lead vocals right from the start) over possibly the strongest instrumental on the entire album. As always with Warpaint, the rhythm section is what makes the song shine; the interplay between the drums and the bass guitar seems effortless spirited. Two songs later, ‘New Song’ offers a similar verve, this time around with a much brighter tone and a bit more bounce, pairing a slide guitar and sampled vocals to create a veritable banger that’s ruthlessly catchy.
Unfortunately, it’s the track in between ‘Whiteout’ and ‘New Song’ that shows the only real downfall of Heads Up
. On its own, there’s nothing wrong with ‘By Your Side’ whatsoever, it’s a simple little dark song that almost feels like it belongs on a James Blake record. It gains energy gradually through some excellent dissonant piano work until eventually exploding at the end, covered in a million vocal tracks that almost sound like a hornet’s nest being poked at. It’s a thoroughly dour ending to a thoroughly dour song, which makes the bright bass that pops in the beginning of ‘New Song’ almost feel like you have the album on random.
It’s an issue that persists with the rest of the album, unfortunately; the pacing and tone is frequently all over the place. The album slows down exactly when its least interesting songs roll through, with ‘Don’t Wanna’ just being dreary and static, and while ‘Don’t Let Go’ is a pleasant dreamy ballad overall, it takes a turn in the middle that’s just awkward. This sudden drop in pace before the halfway mark is made all the more frustrating since there are many, many moments on the album that are brilliant that might go unnoticed; ‘Dre’ is a beautiful song that covers a cold, damp beat with feathery vocals that feel both tender and melancholy, and ‘Heads Up’ is easily one of the tensest songs on the album. It starts with a piano introduction that almost serves as a red herring for the tight drum and bass work that breaks out of the song around a minute in; from there, the song retains an incredibly tight reign over its tone, gradually turning darker and more energetic before finishing the song off with a gang vocal chant of ‘Got to keep your mind at ease/ Got to keep your head up’. It’s genuinely a shame that by this point in the album, many listeners may have checked out four songs ago.
Overall, this album is still a Warpaint album at its core. The band’s strengths are still on full display, and they consistently find creative ways to fill their dreamy sound with just a tinge of tension and energy, whether it’s the triplet breakdown in the drums at the end of the chorus in ‘So Good’, or the cleverly edited-in second of song that’s around three minutes and twenty seconds into the title track. You can still only tell who’s singing by the quality of singing (hint: Emily hits all her notes and Theresa slurs her way through the album, sounding a bit like an alluring late-night drunken voicemail) and their sound is most likely still a bit too sleepy for some, but still, there’s solid songwriting throughout the album and while it might have issues with some of the transitions, the variety of sounds displayed on Heads Up
is much appreciated.
Oh, and by the way: ‘Whiteout’ might be the best song of last year.