Warpaint: Warpaint – review

Warpaint's second album is so muted and restrained as to be barely there, but close listening does reap some rewards

Anyone who's heard Warpaint's 2010 album The Fool might be forgiven for feeling a little nonplussed by the interviews the band have given to promote its eponymous followup. The 60,000 British fans who bought it might well have thought they were listening to a dreamy, hushed, darkly subtle debut album. But they would have been mistaken, at least according to Warpaint's guitarist and vocalist Theresa Wayman, who appears to think they were in fact listening to a cross between Trout Mask Replica, the Mahivishnu Orchestra circa The Inner Mounting Flame and Swedish technical death metal pioneers Meshuggah. The Fool, she has claimed, was "totally crammed" with "too much instrumentation", "too full for my liking" and too "unpredictable". Off the quartet went – as if to underline the fact that they're from LA, they went to a geodesic dome in the desert near Joshua Tree – to rethink their approach.

One writer has compared the results to the kind of new-age music you hear wafting around spas and the kind of health facilities where they cure everything from seasonal affective disorder to rabies with a few drops of Nux Vomica and a course of reiki healing. That seems to be pushing it a bit, despite the presence of what sound suspiciously like sampled pan-pipes at the start of a track called Biggy. Nevertheless, if the quartet's aim was to make their music sound more understated and recumbent than on their debut, you have to say they've succeeded. Warpaint arrives bearing nothing you could reasonably call a hook. Anyone hoping for something in the region of The Fool's best-known track, the understated but instantly addictive Undertow, should note that Warpaint's lead single Love Is to Die – mumbled vocals, lurching key-change that leaves the chorus sounding as if it's been parachuted in from a different song, muted guitars – represents the album's most brashly commercial moment. More characteristic is Keep It Healthy, which features an odd, slippery time signature, dispenses with a chorus in favour of a guitar part so spidery and complex it's almost impossible to get a grasp on, and an overall atmosphere so subdued it makes Love Is to Die sound like the Vengaboys' cover of Hot Hot Hot. It's an album on which every instrument somehow appears to be either lurking in the shadows or wilting in the heat, from the vocals to the vaguely dubstepish synthesised bassline that turns up halfway through Feeling Alright. On first listen, it wafts from the speakers like a thin mist that smells suspiciously of marijuana, then seems to evaporate on contact with air. The songs all blur into one single track, which doesn't particularly stick in your mind.

Patience and time reveal that to be a false first impression, at least in part. On headphones, there are moments when Warpaint sounds like a subtle album filled with subtle pleasures, which is presumably what Wayman and her bandmates were aiming for. Beneath its thin layer of distortion, Hi turns out to be a gorgeous exercise in delicate dynamic shifts, quietly surging then dying away, drums and electronics gently fading in and out of focus. Go In transforms an ungainly double-bass sample and layers of electronically treated vocals into something hynoptic and lovely. Teese slowly unfurls, from a folky guitar figure to a low, languorous rumble of bass and drums to beautiful vocal harmonies over a fragile keyboard hum. The lyrics seem to be more urgent and energetic than the track's drowsy tone suggests – "I want more/ I need more now/ I'm in heaven/ I can't get enough" – although given the blank-eyed tone they're sung in, and the aforementioned herbal whiff, there's always the chance that they're not about insatiable lust but weed-induced gluttony: perhaps she's singing about stuffing her face with Pringles.

Equally, there are moments when concentrating doesn't do any good. The reason the album seems monotonal at first listen may be because the two songs that break the sonambulent pace, Disco/very and Feeling Alright, are pretty forgettable. CC and Drive sound like fragments of stoned jam sessions, which may well be what they are. Both successfully conjure up a humid, torpid, nocturnal atmosphere, but then don't seem to know what to do with it: they feel, in every sense of the phrase, like a load of hot air.

As an experiment, Warpaint isn't an unqualified success. Given the current musical climate of brash immediacy, there's something impressively brave about releasing an album that demands time and concentration, two things that music fans aren't held to possess much of. It sounds like a band meandering down their own routes, not underestimating their audience, less concerned than artists in Warpaint's position are expected to be with capitalising on their early success. Some of the routes it leads you down come to dead ends, but when it works, Warpaint slowly pulls you into its own, quietly captivating world.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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