Whereas most albums take a little time to warm up and stretch their limbs, the opening salvo of “Whiteout” and “By Your Side” is an immediate leap into Heads Up. The two aren’t far off from Warpaint’s older work: Shadowy atmospherics set the scene as bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg and drummer Stella Mozgawa swing into heady rhythms, while vocalists Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman stealthily harmonize. However, by the time “By Your Side” comes to an end with frantic synths, looped vocals, and a heavily distorted, apocalypse-worthy bass drum, one thing is readily apparent: Heads Up is the sound of a fully confident and mature band that has no qualms challenging themselves.
After that initial bleakness, “New Song” is a somewhat surprising and brief foray into pop. Releasing it as the album’s lead single was a red herring of sorts; it’s really the only overtly catchy, poppy song on the album, jarring at first, but after a few listens it manages to fit right in. If anything, the song shows a willingness to diversify styles and acts as a perfect opportunity for Mozgawa to unleash some thumping dance beats.
Speaking of Mozgawa, she is unsurprisingly the VIP of Heads Up. A frequent collaborator with a diverse range of acts, Mozgawa has proven herself to be one of music’s most versatile drummers. Here she lays down some of the most compelling beats of her career as she focuses on locking in with Lindberg — together, they’re constantly pushing and pulling songs into new rhythmic directions. Mozgawa fully embraces skittering electronica, bass heavy hip-hop beats, and straightforward glam and disco strut for a style wholly unique to herself.
At many points throughout the album, vocals subtly move out of the foreground and let that potent groove take center stage. Smart and surprising arrangements are the name of the game here, and you can tell that the four musicians are tightly intertwined: four minds all on the same wavelength, weaving in and around each other, with reverb-heavy harmonies wafting over driving rhythms while guitars, sometimes cleanly picked and other times warped into a shoegazey distortion, swim in and out of the mix. It’s a style Warpaint have been honing since their debut, but Heads Up is the first time this psychic interplay has been stretched out over an entire album.
Even the smallest detail of each song becomes integral to the overall structure. Subtle, blink and you miss it moments are what makes Heads Up such an addicting listen: the horror film piano that transitions “By Your Side” into its last chorus, a short ambient synth wash in “So Good”, the moment “The Stall” briefly switches into a bout of jazzy electric piano flourishes wrapped around guitar funk. None of it is immediately obvious, but repeated listens are rewarded. It’s a deeply satisfying album to listen to with a good set of headphones, the clean production in line with electronic acts like Floating Points and bass-heavy hip-hop.
Take, for instance, the slow burn of “Dre”. Their homage to the iconic producer bares subtle yet telling nods to his production work: woozy guitar lines are a dreamy version of the plucks on “The Next Episode”, and pairing it with a thumping 808-style bass makes it sound more like a trip-hop remix of Dre’s California G-funk.
The stretch of songs beginning with “Don’t Let Go” and ending with “Above Control” is absolutely enthralling, the record continuously evolving into unusual shapes. Both “Don’t Let Go” and the title track start out as a softer ballads. The former features Mozgawa’s compressed-to-hell drums coming booming in a quarter of the way through, while the latter moves between a number of odd rhythms before a crash landing, Mozgawa and Lindberg skidding to a halt in perfect unison. Meanwhile, “Above Control” is a relentless and impenetrable groove that, even after five minutes, ends way too soon.
Heads Up is beguilingly gloomy and acts as a big leap forward for Warpaint. With so many co-existing styles, what could have been a disjointed listen is reigned in thanks to intelligent songwriting, contemporary production, and, most importantly, an intensity that elevates everything with impenetrable confidence and cool.
Essential Tracks: “Whiteout”, “Dre”, and “Don’t Let Go”