Warpaint’s debut full-length album, The Fool, is scary good – extra emphasis on the scary. The all-female quartet have created their own Frankenstein, a mixture of ghostly vocals, pounding drums and droning instrumentation, coming together to create nine songs that are “monster” cuts in every sense of the word.
From the album’s first chord, a dreary, softly strummed pattern on “Set Your Arms Down,” it’s clear The Fool follows a formula focused on two things – repetition, and a constant build-up of sound. Chiming guitar comes in over the top, hitting the same circular melody over and over again, as a desperate voice sings, “And in the backyard/Into the night/We walk through fire/My love is your flashlight.” More layers are added, making the ever-growing soundscape the sole target for the listener’s concentration. But if you’re waiting for an explosion, it’s never going to come. The drums may get louder, the guitar more frenetic, but the hammer never seems to fully drop on The Fool, an album content with accepting this constant sense of anticipation. It’s sonic torture in a small dose, bearable enough that it’s still good for the musical soul.
Such feelings of discomfort make up the dangerous tight rope Warpaint walks. It’s this balance that makes select songs great. “Bees” does not buzz up at you, but rather, it swarms around in the air with its soaking wet guitar tone. Notes come at you every which way, different phrasings and rhythms piling on top of each other like random paint brush splatters adding up over time to make a shape. Newcomer Stella Mozgawa’s drumming is excellent throughout, creating the military-snare feel on “Warpaint,” the funky break beat on “Majesty,” and the punctuation for the chant-along shouting of “Composure.” Mozgawa adds a cocky tilt of the head to the latter’s schoolyard vibe, complimenting its yells and basic riff with a hint of the more mature form the song takes a minute in.
While able to raise the hair on the back of your neck, The Fool, like many monstrous creations, sometimes lacks the necessary intelligence to be fully alive. The first single, “Undertow,” is a prime example of being stuck in this musical limbo. Its simple ‘60s pop rock chord progression is bubbly enough that it won’t leave you for days, and the reverb-drenched melodies that Emily Kokal, Theresa Wayman, and Jenny Lee Lindberg sing are hummable to an extreme, burrowing down into the deepest corners of your musical mind.
It’s what they sing that’s the problem. The first lyrics of “Undertow” are a confusing collision of colors and metaphors that stump even the most eager-to-decipher listener – “Your brown eyes are my blue skies/They light up the rivers that the birds fly over.” One can forgive such awkward imagery when the songs are musically well-constructed, but it still gives the listener pause. On an album so obsessed with texture, it seems lyrical brilliance is hard to find, which negates some of the stronger efforts to come.
“Baby” is the closest they get to a syrupy love song, which, with its down-home acoustic picking pattern, could easily pass for the beginning of a ‘70s rock ballad if sung by a Southern man. “Don’t you call anybody else baby/Because I’m your baby, still,” sings Kokal, as whispered background vocals slide into place behind her. The combination lays you down to sleep, only to suddenly change halfway through into a menacing lecture, complete with the relationship-defining line, “You live your life like a page from the book of my fantasy.”
In moments like that, when Warpaint’s lyrics match the trance-like state The Fool creates, their creation is unstoppable. Claws may be come out, and fangs may be shown, but stand tall and have no fear. When the words actually matter, even the loudest monster sounds sweet.