Saturday, 8 January 2011

Warpaint - The Fool (Album Review)

Warpaint is not what you would expect from an all-female quartet from Los Angeles. And debut album The Fool is not a sun-filled jangling collection of punchy three-minute guitar surf-pop. Instead the band, who formed in 2004 and already have three ex-drummers, have opted for nine tracks of four, five and six minute odysseys. The Fool delivers a dark haunting chill from the outset and the music shimmers with the feel of an impending dusk after a day on a sun-kissed beach.

The first noticeable trait of Warpaint’s music is the gorgeous delicacy of the vocals, lead by Emily Kokal (baring a striking resemblance to Natasha Khan – at least in approach). From opener Set Your Arms Down, the ethereal voices pierce the prosaic guitars, forming the first early highlight. A wonderful choral arrangement bleeds into and increased urgency as the guitars build. From here, an instrumental and (mostly) wordless outro fills out the five minutes. Sublime.

The self-titled Warpaint takes a while to get going before the opening guitars take shape, not too far from the sound Tool realised on their masterpiece Lateralus. The melody becomes more reminiscent of the Cure, circa 1983 and it is this blend of new style and old sounds that make The Fool such an engaging listen. The vocal production creates a new unique instrument to compliment the standard guitar, bass and drums set-up. Undertow is the most complete song on The Fool and again uses all members of the band vocally. “Why you wanna blame me for your troubles? …You better learn your lesson yourself”, they warn on the chorus. The song threatens a different direction at the three-minute point, transforming and injecting energy in the form of jangling guitars and pounding bass. Again it is this invention and the creation of songs within songs that oozes quality. The ending is beguiling tangle of music and vocals.

Bees is more industrial with clanking percussion, echoing vocals and a core guitar riff. It is an uneasy nerve-tingling tale of falling from grace: “All the time it took you to get yourself straight…it’s too late…” and then the mystical “And the full moon it taunts me…”. Shadows is another highlight, a claustrophobic journey through an oppressive city (“Now there’s nothing here for me”). Kokal delivers her finest vocal, filled with melody: “The things you once told me, the thoughts you once gave me; sound like the wind in my ears…” is exquisite. The stark military drums add the contrast as Kokal rises to a howl. Likewise Composure is a brilliant mix of school-room chant and piercing guitars taking a simple one-line idea and stretching it to the limits with everyone playing their part.

Into the last three songs, The Fool continues the ideas but if anything the songs get a bit too loose. Baby is the best of the three – a nursery rhyme lament about a doomed relationship. Cryptic lyrics are thrown around as the song plods slowly through its five minutes. Majesty, the longest song as just over six and half minutes, is an entire album in one song. Effects litter the otherwise usual landscape as Kokal recalls the love story with a monarchical tilt. And closer Lissie’s Heart Murmur is a poor end to an otherwise excellent debut.

Warpaint manage to be a girl band without sounding like one, in that they shun the usual clichés while still embracing their femininity. This is mainly due to the vocals but the beautiful gothic music washes through the songs with deft precision and carefully crafted control. Through the dark overtones of the music are continued consistent shafts of vocal light. The only criticism is that The Fool loses focus and discipline towards the end and melody is sacrificed for production. But there is enough to build on and Warpaint have shown that while they may not be your typical marketable female pop stars, they are an interesting and talented alternative.

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