You know how Led Zeppelin are always attributed as the kind of band where each player is the best in their field of the time? Then there’s the original lineup of Pixies holding the corner for indie rock. Even the Red Hot Chili Peppers in their chart-topping prime have the four pillars that are unparalleled in talent. Warpaint (funnily enough, initially hyped for their association with the Chili Peppers) have come to represent that untouchable instrumental prowess, with maybe the best rhythm section going, compromised of Jenny Lee Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa. Heads Up is the album that they teased previously with their last two albums – and an excellent EP and collection of singles – but had detours down different routes that sometimes made for a more subdued version of what they intended. Finally, oh so finally, Heads Up is the dancey psych-rock statement that doesn’t lose its groove halfway through or disappears into sleepy R’n’B. Sure, there’s R’n’B, but it’s uptempo, buoyant and holds your attention – ‘The Stall’ is the upgrade to ‘Hi’ and ‘Biggy’ from their self titled album. In fact, most of it is a retooled, upgraded, funk-injected version of what Warpaint offered. Because Warpaint have always been a dance band, they just had to make the album to prove it.
The best Warpaint songs force you to latch onto an instrument for the length of the song and zone everything out, then move onto the next instrument, and the next, until you get the entire picture. Though in recent years the number of lengthy songs that they’ve written has thinned out, aside from the excellent ‘No Way Out’, Warpaint do slightly return to that longer tracklength on a couple of songs here, such as ‘So Good’ and the title track, with both stretching to five or six minutes. ‘So Good’ is an instant highlight, driven right out the gate by Mozgawa setting the tempo and some production wizardry by Jacob Bercovici, who sets the drums front and centre, making ‘So Good’ into the danciest track they’ve had since ‘Disco//Very’. The lyrics are about an on/off partner who the protagonist is almost dependant on, and contrasts ‘I’m going out my mind’ with the denial of the next line, ‘I’m handling it’. But the other side, the one who has the power, never seems to connect the way that Theresa Wayman, co-vocalist with Emily Kokal, conveys it. The guitars are way more subtle once again, providing a centrepiece in the gaps and bridges between verses and choruses. But it’s easy to latch onto the needling twin guitars that twirl around the drums and bass, you can zone out to the bass (provided by Theresa Wayman on a rare occasion), or if you’re like me, those crisp drums.
The psychedelic side of Warpaint appears in new ways. Instead of woozy guitars there’s woozy synths and electronics that blur into a haze with the bass and drums on ‘Dre’ and ‘By Your Side’, which has more hip-hop than indie-rock in its veins, though maybe the title of ‘Dre’ gives it away. The embracing of electronic music is smooth and weaves itself nicely into Warpaint, never sounding like this is Warpaint moving away from ‘guitar’ music, as they always slip in and out of sounds, making them one of the few acts around that defies genre within popular music. It’s very hard to define Warpaint, and it only gets harder on Heads Up. ‘Heads Up’, the title track, is a culmination of what Warpaint have done up to this point, beginning with the gloomy piano of ‘Son’ and the lo-fi vocals of The Fool (which at this point, sounds so far removed from Warpaint are presenting here), before Lindberg’s bass gallops in at full pace, a little bit like ‘Krimson’. ‘Heads Up’ – the song – does feel like a throwback to ‘Krimson’ and ‘Beetles’ with all of the time changes, guitar craziness and group vocals.
The album ends with a song Emily Kokal wrote when she was 19, ‘Today Dear’, and is much more in line with any of her solo work in that its just her and a guitar, but it becomes reinforced with bass, glockenspiel and ambient electronics towards the end. So, in the space of a song, Warpaint have transitioned from single performers, excellent or excellent-in-waiting in their field, and by the end, you have the rock-steady group of four that’s now writing some of the most interesting music around. Even in the lyrics, it’s clear this was written for a different time – ‘Today, dear / Today / I saw my blood drawn out / Saw my flood run dry’ begins the song. It’s one of the most beautiful things Warpaint have released, in the same lane as ‘Baby’ or ‘Son’. Heads Up is fully realised. It doesn’t dip in the middle like Warpaint tended to do after a few listens. Maybe it was the pace of recording that made Heads Up a more urgent release; they didn’t agonise over it like Warpaint. Maybe it’s just that they’re some of the best musicians around making pretty great music. We might not be able to label it, but we can enjoy the hell out of it.
Funnel Recommends: New Song / So Good / Today Dear