At most, albums like Warpaint’s The Fool are released a few times a year; a debut that feels entirely the opposite. Think about Best Coast or Vampire Weekend, a couple examples from recent years. By the time their first full-length albums were released, we already knew the singers names and could recite brief histories of their past several years. It’s unnatural, in a way, to have high expectations thrust at you when you are, in reality, releasing your only album, ever. But these expectations come with great rewards if you can come remotely close to fulfilling them, as the VW boys can attest, having just headlined the Hollywood Bowl with about an hour of recorded material under their belt.
Warpaint join this acclaimed company by living up to the lofty expectations that their head-turning live shows and a seemingly endless stream of blog chatter have earned them. The Fool is a success no matter how you slice it, playing like a genre record for a genre that doesn’t exist. Much like the aforementioned buzz bands, their sound is already a fully-formed entity, with nothing comparable readily available on the market. After hearing The Fool, the closest comparison I can think of for their slow-burning and sprawling compositions is their recent tour-mates and another freshman phenom, the xx. The xx are better and cutting to chase, but the sensual longing of youth and emotional pain that comes with it inform every note that these groups have released. Warpaint’s ace in the hole is making the castaway drifts that their songs seem to lean towards actually payoff and reach their destination.
The downside to The Fool? It’s the same complaint that makes it so practically impossible to have a perfect debut. Any group that starts out knowing too distinctly where they are going can seem one note. But this is less a problem for the above winning debuts because at the root, they are lean pop songs. Warpaint, though they infuse their tunes with infectious melodies, have only one clear single in “Undertow”, and thus their album is not quite as enjoyable on an everyday level. And even “Undertow” had to be released as an edit, and as a result the tune everyone will hear is not as affecting as the album version.
That isn’t to say there aren’t clear standouts on the album, there are. Emily Kokal (“Blond Warpaint”) has a show-stealing ballad near the end of the record that has the same effect on my libido as watching Fatal Attraction, though the ambiguity of the whether to hear it “Don’t you call anyone else baby” or “don’t you call anyone else, baby” creates enough doubt to roll the dice with the possible ice-pick wielder.
In fact, the lyrics throughout the record lean heavily on “don’t fuck with Warpaint” as a motif. These girls aren’t taking shit from anyone, and if you have seen them move while they play these songs, it’s the kind of strong-minded, independent, confident, and possibly overwhelming women that girls need to hear music from, rather than just submissive themes that are continually perpetuated through mainstream art. They are not divas or starlets selling their bodies; they are making complicated and intricate art-rock with creative sounds, textures, and instruments. In fact, they don’t even have a lead singer, with all members assigned vocalist duties and two listing singing as their primary instrument, to the point where the listener doesn’t worry if the singer is “Hair-Whip Warpaint” or “Exotic Warpaint” (I didn’t have a nickname for Theresa Wayman, I’m sorry that one is weak…it’s better than the one I was going to go with for Stella Mozgawa, or “Time-Keeping Warpaint”).
The point, anyway, is that worrying about distinguishing them by their individual traits is the opposite of what feels natural, which is listening to Warpaint as Warpaint: a collective voice and a collective instrument. You may have your favorite based on stage presence (I’m partial to “Hair-Whip”), but school-boy crushes couldn’t elevate mediocre musicianship, which The Fool would be hard-pressed to be cast as.
Other standouts include the live favorite “Composure”, which may feel disjointed as the intro does a 180 degree turn and transitions into a spooky Red Hot Chili Peppers groove (psych-funk, definitely not funkadelic), but the song works in a “Paranoid Android” kind of way, finding its way back to the school yard/Lord of the Flies chant that ignited the song. “Shadows”, which was the first song the band did not write together, showcases Theresa Wayman as an equally-adept front-woman as the aforementioned Kokal, using another texture-rich verse to lull the listener into the chorus that is less catchy than it is blanketing to the senses. But you could signal out any of the nine songs as being strong, as an album the only thing that lacks is the experience to go beyond this winning formula,which, for a debut, is not valid nor fair to fault a band for. The changes come on subsequent albums, where a band is expected to grow and mature.
Though the guitar leads sound unpolished, the vocals sound untrained, and the bass can overwhelm the songs, the lack of perfection makes more of a statement than all the auto-tune in the world. And if a first album didn’t leave room to improve and grow, and, most importantly, if it didn’t lay down a path towards a goal, then there would be little point to making music. It might not be the best first album I have heard this year, but Warpaint has the highest ceiling of the lot. And if they show their second album the time and patience that this one took to make, then we will be having a much different conversation in three years.