Warpaint, “Heads Up”

Warpaintwarpaint-2016-heads_up
Heads Up
ROUGH TRADE
5/10

Almost seven years have passed since Warpaint released their intriguing debut, Exquisite Corpse. The Californian quartet showed much promise on that six-song EP, offering sun-washed, jangly psychedelia draped with lo-fi guitars and syrupy vocals. Since then, the band has made earnest and commendable efforts to recapture that seraphic magic. Their third full-length, however, sounds like a dutiful turn toward the middle of the road. Heads Up aims for a more polished, pop-oriented sound than the band’s 2014 self-titled album, delivering hook-heavy, radio-ready songs and even a few electronic jams. But in the streamlined production process, Warpaint have lost their scrappy charm, acquiring a sleek sonic sheen that’s sadly formless.

The lead single makes the early case for a catchier, more accessible Warpaint. “New Song” threads a sultry chorus over a chirping sample and the word “baby” is harmonized with arena-rock potential as recoiled riffs co-mingle with deft percussion. But the song doesn’t induce the obsessive cravings of pop music, and it certainly doesn’t beg to be played. “The Stall” begins with a similar energy but loses steam halfway through. The chorus finds lead vocalist Emily Kokal singing with unspecific dedication: “But I won’t give up on you.” Warpaint aren’t renowned for their lyrical prowess, but the songwriting on this record is especially generic. Heads Up is full of recycled rock and roll tropes: “I get high when I’m low,” “going out of my mind,” “don’t let go, I need you now,” and so on.

If the pop-rock anthems on Heads Up sound pedestrian, the beat-driven, electronic-oriented songs will offer some slight relief. The band paints with a different palette here, applying synthesizers and drum machines to great effect. On “Don’t Wanna,” vocals are layered over minimal beats and wistful chords. It’s brief and lovely, and it shows the band in a fascinating new role. The song “Dre” is also notable for its languid, shoegazey gleam, and the woeful closer, “Today Dear,” offers an intimate acoustic experience.

Still, it’s not enough to save what is an otherwise muddled listen. In this respect, the album cover is quite revealing: though promising, Heads Up is an underexposed and underdeveloped representation of the group’s talent that leaves them faceless. 

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