Douglas Martin doesn’t put on war paint before combat. Just an army helmet.

With a name like Warpaint, people rarely mistake the Los Angeles quartet for anything closely resembling easy listening. The hotly-tipped band has made quite the name for themselves over the past couple of years by navigating the minefield that is better known as “the romantic partnership.” Whether with quiet acoustic numbers or dexterous guitar work over skittering cymbals, Warpaint create stirring vignettes of the dark, uncomfortable side of love, casting a dim light on the shadows gliding across the bedroom floor.

Last year’s Exquisite Corpse EP started with the minor-key murmur of “Stars,” with two solemn voices singing, “Oh, wonderful one, why are you like that?” in stark unison and harmony. The drums add a little heft a little more than halfway through, but they don’t last long, choosing to build tension instead of punctuate the dialogue. “Billie Holiday,” a song that has become their calling card of sorts, is a haunting ballad that makes way for a chilling devotional in the form of “My Guy,” made famous by another soul singer, Mary Wells. Most immediate was “Elephants,” an explosive post-punk tune featuring a glittery guitar line and the repeated phrase, “They call me a thief.” Exquisite Corpse definitely was not music made to cuddle by the fireplace, unless you were singing from the vantage point of someone who got thrown in one.

When the band debuted “Undertow,” the lead single for debut full-length The Fool, its subtlety carried the minor twinge of disappointment. Surely the nimble guitars weren’t going to be replaced by muted chords, were they? In the context of the album, however, the song fits perfectly with its wearisome nature, with the vocals (everyone except drummer/keyboardist Stella Mozgawa sings) never quite scaling past indoor volume — lyrics such as, “What’s the matter?/Did you hurt yourself?” and “Why you wanna blame me for your troubles?/You better learn your lesson” coming to the fore, reading like a private argument turned public.

The self-destructive lover resurfaces on album standout “Bees,” a lament over “all that time it took you to get yourself straight,” delivered with an incredulous head shake and the conversation ender: “It’s too late to work harder.” With a lockstep drumbeat and knotty, mid-range guitars, “Bees” manages to find a balance between Warpaint’s two greatest strengths: the heavenly, ethereal voices not quite in the foreground (but not quite in the background), and a sense of rhythm that makes a band like The Rapture look like Pavement.

“Shadows” recalls a half-remembered drunk and tired conversation, with the question of “What did you whisper in my ear?” raised. “Composure” finds the band lyrically struggling to keep it cool, while the drums go from swinging to pulsating and back to swinging with chanting and exasperated sighs in equal measure. The Fool not only surveys the wreckage and debris of a relationship gone awry, it picks up pieces of broken concrete and flings them. It’s extremely hard to tell exactly who exactly the fool is. Or maybe the members of Warpaint are aware that every relationship is a battle, and everybody eventually plays the fool. –DM

MP3: Warpaint-“Bees”
MP3: Warpaint-“Stars”

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