12 years after forming in Los Angeles, a short hiatus, and three albums, Warpaint offer Heads Up, a welcome return for the dream pop foursome. Fans of previous efforts such as the superb 2008 EP Exquisite Corpse and full-length follow-up The Fool will welcome more of the same moody and downcast aesthetic and the addition of interesting and effective pop and hip hop murmurs. On this latest work, Warpaint manage to reconnect with the experimentation of their early years, but at times fall victim to some of the more disappointing and often alienating aspects of 2014’s self-titled effort.
It is when they sound at their most erratic that Warpaint tend to be most effective. Lead single ‘New Song’, therefore, was a surprising venture into radio-friendly pop. This has never been a group ready to bring you in with catchy hooks, rather their impact was in a vast and atmospheric signature where melodies are free to roam and get somewhat lost. This venture through murky musical landscapes has worked incredibly well in the past (‘Elephants’, ‘Baby’), but such mystery is lacking on the sleeker tracks of Heads Up.
‘New Song’s bridges boast some of the album’s best vocals, but it is ultimately let down by a rather lackluster pop hook in the chorus, and lyrics which go round and round and never settle on anything all that compelling. Stella Mozgawa doesn’t seem to turn up until the instrumental outro, but by then the impression is that the track has been produced to within an inch of its life. A pity really, given that Mozgawa’s percussion on opener ‘Whiteout’ is excellent, controlled and manages to retain that early Warpaint frenzied post rock intonation.
Kendrick Lamar, Q-Tip and Outkast are said to have impacted some of the compositional decisions, and it is on tracks like the stellar ‘Dre’ and ‘By Your Side’ that these hip hop influences can be distinguished. Again, it is Mozgawa’s percussion which is really foregrounded, but that isn’t grounds enough to understate the impact of Kokal and Wayman’s vocal partnership on ‘By Your Side’. Lyrically, it is one of the more direct tracks on the record, and one can’t help but identify something real and authentic in lines like “You know / you know just what you’re doing / admit it’”, delivered with an almost callous tone, strong and unsympathetic.
Elsewhere, delicate vocal runs on ‘Dre’, ‘Whiteout’, and closer ‘Today Dear’ offset harsher percussion and guitar lines, interweaving fragile and ethereal harmonic tones. Kokal and Wayman’s deliveries can get lost, run into one another, or taken over completely by vast soundscapes. This designed disparity is when the band are at their most compelling. So too do the vocalists experiment with rhythmic pitching, complementing striking percussion parts particularly on ‘The Stall’ with measured temporal deliveries working off fast-paced rhythm that doesn’t let up.
Heads Up, in many ways, offers more of the same from Warpaint. At times it is incredibly interesting, dark, and powerful. At others, somewhat inauthentic, removed, and difficult to connect with. When aesthetics from early albums and EPs are evoked, this is some of the group’s best work. But vocal delivery and lyrics often feel uninspired and dampened (an unfortunate facet of the record’s predecessor), leading to dynamic shifts in both enthusiasm and passion. Heads Up at its best is truly remarkable stuff, but oftentimes seems reduced to radio-friendly hooks that don’t quite hit home.