Warpaint Doesn’t Get It Right
Warpaint -- "The Fool" -- Rough Trade -- 2 STARS
“Which came first, the music or the misery?” This question, asked by “High Fidelity” protagonist, Rob Fleming, a depressed record store owner, is more or less inapplicable to Warpaint’s debut album: the music came first, and it’s pretty miserable. Gloomy albums are not innately bad, but successful, gloomy bands like the National and The xx encourage listeners to indulge their sorrow by being gloomy in lots of different ways. Warpaint aims for the dark atmospherics of The xx, with whom they recently toured, but Warpaint’s repeated use of glossy, deep bass loops and unimaginative guitar lines to create dolorous atmospheres is overwhelming and begins to wear rapidly. Unfortunately, the band foregoes some of the essentials, like nuance and songcraft, in creating the nine overly similar tracks of “The Fool.”
Despite their limited tonal vocabulary (re: gloomy and reverberating), which constrains the LP’s 47 minutes, Warpaint succeeds in creating movement within the songs, affecting dynamic shifts with Stella Mozgawa’s restrained yet powerful drumbeats. The controlled beats coupled with the tracks’ sparse orchestration makes even the slightest alteration, be it an additional hi-hat twitch or tom breakdown, doubly effective. “Bees” begins with a basic drum machine track that keeps the song interesting despite the overly-produced, cookie-cutter riffs tossed off by the guitarists. The creative drum work is only reinforced by the group’s strong melodies and vocal arrangements. However, the disappointingly unimaginative bass and guitar lines keep the song from realizing the potential suggested by the drum and vocal parts.
In fact, the bass and guitar work on the album is remarkably lackluster, with every part falling short of the atmospheric effect it intends to create while blatantly suggesting what it’s failing to achieve. The bass and guitar parts function as placeholders, as if inserted into the songs by ambitious musicians who thought they’d find inspiration later on in the recording process.
“Composure” is perhaps the most glaring example of these shortcomings. The song begins with an embarrassingly bombastic and lengthy intro. The guitar repeats a commonplace chord progression while the drums dramatically flutter behind each exasperatingly declarative strum. A dispensable bass line mumbles beneath a busy guitar line, which eventually fuses itself into what sounds like a gesture to the full-blown guitar freakouts of Johnny Greenwood, but with only some of the feeling and none of the style. The melodic instruments become mere unimaginatively atmospheric tools, and when the song slows to a stop with a sound like a turntable powering down, you barely realize it was ever spinning at the proper speed.
The album’s single, “Undertow,” suggests some of the unrealized potential of the album. The bass chords are simple, but pleasant—almost nostalgic—and the guitar line is more restrained than on the other tracks. The vocalists experiment with beautifully melancholic harmonies, often progressing in heart wrenching, contrary motion à la Stevie Nicks’ best vocal performances. The singers cast lovely, if obscure lyrics over the beautiful instrumental parts. Lines like “Your brown eyes are my blue skies / They light up the rivers that the birds fly over” are fittingly evocative, even if the line “nobody ever has to find what’s in my mind tonight” proves an apt statement given the occasionally inscrutable nature of the group’s impressionistic lyrics.
On “Baby,” one of the two acoustic tracks of the album, the band offers another saddening snapshot of what could have been. Though the music of the song is still relatively unimaginative, it’s not the track’s most prominent feature. Instead, the three vocalists ease out some of the album’s most delicately beautiful melody lines, each memorable part blowing like a soft breeze through the speakers, mixing with the others, but never interfering. This is what the album was meant to be and what, at its best moments, it is. The unimaginative music is merely the basis over which the singers cast their siren song. Unfortunately, in most every other song on the album, the beautiful vocal work is weakened by pervasively dull musicianship. If nothing else, this album suggests that Warpaint has interesting ideas that, if properly executed, would truly make for something special.
—Staff writer Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.