The Los Angeles quartet Warpaint’s remarkably fluid 2010 debut The Fool arrived amid a banner couple of years for drifty, synth-glazed dream-pop, from Telepathe to Neon Indian to Washed Out. Unlike many of their peers, however, Warpaint scaled up into a fearsome live unit. In part, this was because they’ve always mixed a hint of prog into their approach — let’s not forget artsy guitar virtuoso John Frusciante mixed and mastered their early EP Exquisite Corpse.
Their self-titled sophomore album is the fullest realization yet of their hydra-headed touring unit. Producer Flood (U2, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave) redirects Warpaint’s darker eddies toward bigger stages without overwhelming their essential intimacy, and the band have found an impressive balance between textured, wee-hours restraint and commanding technical prowess. Radiohead producer and Atoms for Peace member Nigel Godrich also helped mix, and the fragmentary unease of Thom Yorke’s crew creeps into the winding guitar patterns of “Keep It Healthy” or the eerie wordless moans of “Go In.”
The most welcoming moments here — the rapturous trip-hop grooves of “Biggy,” the crystalline lust of “Teese” — narrowly top debut peaks “Undertow” and “Elephants.” The album ranges across styles, folding in the odd dance-punk threat “Disco // very” or the gorgeously Beach House-like closing lullaby “Son.” But no matter what genre they are exploring, Warpaint generally stays at an alluring distance. The dusky vocals are split between rhythm guitarist Emily Kokal, lead guitarist Theresa Wayman and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg, so it can be hard to tell who’s singing, and their sometimes-elliptical lyrics reveal themselves only gradually.
Stella Mozgawa’s powerhouse drumming provides the presence and physicality that the other members don’t. Though she played on The Fool, this album marks the first time she’s been involved with the songwriting from the beginning. Warpaint sounds like the product of a tightly-knit live band, and Mozgawa’s fervent kit work is surely part of the reason. Instantly-quotable first single “Love Is to Die” is full of ambivalence — “Love is to die/ Love is to not die/ Love is to dance” — but when just about everything drops out, boom: There’s the rumble of percussion, subtly but inexorably pointing forward. If the size of Warpaint’s name on the Coachella poster raised some eyebrows, the formidable sound here might help explain why.