On their self-titled sophomore effort, Warpaint take a decisive turn toward emphatic inversion, a perhaps telling reaction understood within the context in which the band’s 2010 debut, The Fool, was critically received. It’s as if the all-female four-piece — featuring Emily Kokal (vocals, guitar), Theresa Wayman (vocals, guitar), Jenny Lee Lindberg (bass and backing vocals), and Stella Mozgawa (drums) — wanted to make a point of their having decided to shun and consequently dismiss the pointed yet all-too-common criticisms found among reviews of that first album, because on Warpaint, those very objects cease to be outlier aspects of Warpaint’s sound and are instead celebrated, taking front and center stage, becoming the music’s very driving substance.
Whatever the meaning of this turn, it’s an interesting one, especially coming from this band. Much has already been made of their curious rise to relative success. For some inexplicable reason, I’ll never forget when I first clicked on an audio-only upload on YouTube for “Undertow” back in 2010; the song didn’t seem particularly remarkable, yet it’s stayed in my head since. Most perplexing though was a nicely photographed image of the then younger Kokal and Wayman, as if this new act already had a sweet professional publicity team behind them. Then came knowledge that some guy from Red Hot Chili Peppers was involved with the band, that actress Shannyn Sossamon was once a member, and then news that Siouxsie Sioux had mixed their first record; before long, every blog that straddled the then still clearer divide between indie and mainstream sang their praises.
Celebrity associations and collaborations notwithstanding, the frustrations expressed by critics (most of whom nonetheless generally favored them) upon hearing The Fool were relatively unlike most one would hear, centered around the somewhat hard-to-articulate observation that their music lacked an ability to engage the listener. But one of the most interesting aspects of Warpaint’s sound was ignored, and that was their predilection for the progressive and mainly electronic-minded trends of the 90s. Which, considering the years in between albums and the ways in which the 90s has been viewed by the constantly emergent, contemporaneous music scene, begs some questions: Was this element to Warpaint’s sound less noticeable then? And how does the recognition of this effect how the band figures within or fits into the current music scene?
Whatever the answers are, this newly prominent 90s streak has changed how Warpaint sounds now, and it is more receptive to, reconciles, and complements the supposed characteristic disorder in their music. Perhaps this is because of the involvement of big-name producers/mixers Flood and Nigel Godrich, two men who played a large role in the more “progressive” trends and electronic hybridizations of the late 80s through early 00s. While still considerably unique from its history in the 80s, no account of the rise of electronic music in the 90s should be taken into consideration without looking at the work that big-name producers did with big-name acts, particularly in the aftermath of grunge. It is to this source tradition, if it may so be called, that Warpaint owes most of its inspiration and influence. It is also only all-too-fitting that well-known producers such as Flood and Andrew Weatherall worked during the various changes in music over time that connect goth rock and post-punk with electronic music, a genealogy that can also be heard in Warpaint’s entire output, going back to 2009’s Exquisite Corpse EP.
That aforementioned production style of the 90s manifested itself in a sound that clumsily yet fascinatingly tried to tear itself away from the anti-electronic attitudes that were so dominant in rockist conversations at the time. If it can be identified as a sound, this method of production was one with a more explicit relationship to the process and technicalities of the recording studio and of production, one that could be characterized as confused, undeveloped, and in formation, though to no end, as if its self-realization were perpetually out of reach. But this is how it manages to click with Warpaint’s own characteristically self-contained assemblage compositions. In fact, unlike the much more song-structured debut, the songs on Warpaint are nearly indiscernible. The album even starts not only with the establishment of a jam/rehearsal-type vibe, but also with an old, gloomy, organ-sounding instrument that doesn’t give out post-goth vibes as much as something out of Maxinquaye.
Were one to hear the follow-up “Keep It Healthy,” they couldn’t be blamed for thinking it some lost Radiohead song — that is, until the vocals begin, which is where Godrich’s influence is made strongly apparent. It is equally apparent on lead single “Love Is To Die,” but only in as much as the members of Warpaint also make themselves heard, making for a successful convergence of producer and songwriter(s). Further into the album, “Hi” possibly draws from a reservoir of impressionable sounds associated with past female-fronted acts, ranging from Sneaker Pimps, to the softer atmospherics of 12 Rounds, to the vibes produced by Portishead. But where Warpaint truly reaches its peak articulation is on “Biggy,” nothing if not reminiscent of the exclusively proto-naughties-hipster aspects of the progressive 90s. The album closes with “Son,” which like the earlier “Teese,” recalls some haunted concoction of Radiohead and PJ Harvey, but especially OK Computer track “Climbing Up The Walls,” with a touch of dream pop such as was heard on Harvey’s Let England Shake.
Listening to Warpaint, one should instantly be struck by just how unique a space they could occupy within the contemporary music spectrum. What’s more, their sound isn’t one that’s been carved out necessarily; it’s always been there since Exquisite Corpse, but only more recently has it been developed (perhaps because of the aid of top-name producers). The subsequent realization of the particularity and peculiarity of this sound’s partial ambivalence to song structure and its frame of reference should only make the band worth a listen for even the most wearied of listeners.