Los Angeles-based Warpaint have developed a knack for moody atmospherics. Over the course of the past decade-plus, the band-guitarists/vocalists Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman, along with bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg and drummer Stella Mozgawa-have released several albums worth of carefully constructed ambient pieces delivered with a cool detachment and an understated confidence. It’s a fine approach to have as long as the songs are strong, but upon repeated listens can begin to reveal some hang-ups. In Warpaint’s case, their recordings, though starkly complex and beautifully crafted can come across as a bit too lethargic at times, which stands in stark contrast to the bubbling energy that emanates from the stage at the band’s performances. Perhaps a bit self-aware of this feeling, the four approached the recording of their latest album, Heads Up, with the intent of replicating some of that live energy. In press interviews accompanying the album’s release, they speak at length to their desire to open up the sound a bit, resolving to “bump the speed up and have a little bit more fun”.
The new direction in sound was influenced, as well, by the individual freedoms and indulgences each member afforded themselves. Kokal learned and experimented with the recording software Ableton, a process she now refers to as a “life-changing experience”, and Wayman occupied herself with the complexities of creating sample and beat-based music accompanied by live instrumentation. And, while these two guitarists were creatively holing up in studios, Lindberg and Mozgawa took to the road with serious side gigs; Lindberg touring behind her debut solo effort, right on!, and Mozgawa helming the drum kit for a lengthy portion of Kurt Vile’s world tour.
These breaks served as a recharge of the batteries, allowing the four to connect back as a collective unit filled with a more determined sense of purpose and confident enough to try new things. These fresh ideas are manifested in several ways over the course of Heads Up’s eleven tracks. “By Your Side” and “Don’t Let Go” develop slowly and sinisterly, with its’ throttling bass lines serving as strong backbones to the aggressively random blurts of noise that startle the sound scape at various points. Elsewhere, like on the appropriately titled “Dre” and the leadoff track “Whiteout”, the band experiments with hints of 90s hip-hop and trip-heavy beats with nods of gratitude and appreciation to the groggy atmospherics of Portishead and the moodier, pricklier side of The Cure.
While these tracks and most of the others here add wrinkles to the standard Warpaint template, it’s the lead single, “New Song” that most clearly represents a shift in dynamic. With a groove molded out of repeated listens to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”, “New Song” shimmers with a brightened sheen previously unheard of in the band’s catalog. Infectiously danceable and emboldened by cheerfully optimistic lyrics, it’s a bona fide hit that breathes new life into a signature landscape. It’s also not too terribly difficult to envision this track gussied up and blasted out into bars and clubs as a pulsating remix. It’s that catchy.
With this release, it appears that Warpaint are ever so slowly loosening up and allowing for an air of spontaneity. Their decision to adopt a more carefree approach to the songwriting process and production technique has added pockets of energetic charm to the finished product. A great deal of the kinetic energy one observes and collects at the band’s live performances is bottled up, recorded and preserved for prosperity. Heads Up comes across more as a casual jam party/listening party and less as a stilted science experiment.