Douglas Martin still has the strongest look on the Internet.
Subtlety is a grossly undervalued quality in rock music. Ever since the advent of the volume knob, the sort of guitar music that gets us most inspired is either heavy as a brick or as shrill as a toothache. If you practice chiefly in the art of nuance, you’re at best (like Grizzly Bear) largely characterized as dad-rock for gallery curators and at worst (like most other modern indie bands who experience actual success) in the 3pm slot at Snoozefest 8. Rare is the band that can contain understated characteristics and maintain a remarkably high level of intrigue.
To be fair, Warpaint wasn’t always a band that could pull that off. In spite of its signature moment being a campfire interpolation of “My Guy,” Exquisite Corpse, the debut EP from the LA quartet, had its fair share of explosive moments, ablaze with skittering cymbals and jagged, ripcord guitar riffs. The EP’s whispery moments pale in comparison to songs like “Elephants” and the moment where “Stars” really gets going. Warpaint had a grasp on the concept of subtlety but wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.
In terms of potential, The Fool was a lateral move instead of a forward progression. It certainly had its moments, but mostly sounded like a really good post-punk band, requisite piano ballad and all. But the word of the day is subtlety, and Warpaint achieved that in spades with a stark, ghostly acoustic number called “Baby.” It was very indicative of the band’s willingness to exist in the shadows, to explore the dark side of love and obsession while putting on the front of writing a sweet love song.
Warpaint’s self-titled album starts with a misfire. Not in the sense that they wrote a bum song, but a botched part that literally stops the instrumental for a second while bearings are regained. They then rip into a gorgeous set piece, bursting with texture and a sense of rhythm only hinted at on Exquisite Corpse and The Fool. By the time “Intro” has transitioned into “Keep it Healthy,” Warpaint have firmly established the tone of their excellent sophomore set.
Throughout Warpaint, dusky hues and open space are recorded in a way that gives the album a sense of sophistication. It would be uncharacteristic of a band like Warpaint to overpack their sound with hurdy gurdies and other extraneous, unnecessary bullshit, but there’s a real feeling of there being few moving parts here, all strong and functioning to the highest of their ability. There’s no way to imagine a song like “Biggy” or the Sneaker Pimpish “Feeling Alright” existing in a different form. Warpaint have figured out what they want to sound like and nailed it down.
Even when the band tries their hand at a style previously foreign to them, they infuse it with their identity with a significant level of poise, imagination, and confidence. Take the jazzy, vaguely psychedelic “Go In,” for instance. It sounds like it should be played in a low-lit club with lamps at all the tables instead of a dank rock venue, but it sounds unmistakably like Warpaint. The album’s final two songs — the lightly pulsating “Drive” and movie soundtrack-ready closer “Son” — are minor masterworks, songs with a musical and emotional timbre perfectly befitting of a band like Warpaint, one that forms shapes and colors out of barely visible twilight.