Review: Warpaint, Heads Up

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The third album in a group’s discography is almost as tricky to navigate as the second. Even if it may not have a trendy descriptor like the sophomore slump, there are certain expectations once a band has reached three records. Apathy could be setting in. Maybe comfortability and familiarity have taken priority over novelty and creativity. It could be a shrug or a breath of fresh air.

Warpaint face all of those possibilities head on with Heads Up, capably evolving their unique blend of murky alternative pop music. After two successful records (The Fool and the self-titled Warpaint), the all-woman group refuses to rest on their laurels. Their third, with its variety of cloudy dance tracks and pained love songs, might be their best yet.

Warpaint work best behind a thick layer of haze. “By Your Side” is buoyed by harsh industrial noises, whispery vocals, and crisp guitar riffs, while the lush “The Stall” is the band’s spin on darker New Wave. Heads Up is an album to accompany late nights of fatigue and melancholy, although some songs do pick up the pace considerably.

The themes of relationships and femininity are shrouded in blackness, too. Take the sparse “Don’t Wanna”—over a looping drum machine, vocalist Emily Kokal seems to be taking a stand for women in today’s society, only if she didn’t sound so exhausted by it all. As the song continues, it’s hard to decipher whether she’s bemoaning that she “doesn’t wanna define herself” or “defend herself.” Smartly, the group understands those complexities, elevating the track to something much more powerful.

The R&B and rap influences that crept up on their previous record are even more evident here. “Dre”, named after the Doctor, is a highlight and speaks to what the group can do so well—a slight reverb on the vocals, spacey instrumentation, and a head-bopping rhythm. It’s ominous, exciting, and bizarre all at once.

“Whiteout” incorporates a funky bass-line and, combined with a rapping-singing style, sounds like it’s ripped straight from some of the best 90s R&B. Warpaint are operating in the same gloomy, genre-bending arena that Clams Casino and other hip-hop producers thrive in. It’s not difficult to imagine rappers like Vince Staples or ASAP Rocky jumping on a remix of any of these tracks.

Elsewhere, there are inspired attempts at brighter, poppier sounds. The pulsing “New Song” is as catchy as anything on the radio right now, and the feelings about new love are immediately relatable. “So Good” is a throbbing dance track in the xx’s vein, complete with a humming chorus and occasional tambourines. The title track is less effective, but all three songs add some much-needed levity to such a shadowy record.

Heads Up only falters near the end. The fluttering “Above Control” is repetitive and adds nothing new to Warpaint’s formula. “Today Dear” is a particularly weak final track—only using strained vocals and an acoustic guitar are not this group’s forte. It’s strange that Warpaint chooses to conclude the record with a track that’s so out of place from what came before it.

Even in ending on a starkly depressing note, Heads Up is a strong, evocative record that solidifies Warpaint as one of the genre’s most creative and entertaining. Whatever that genre is, however, is still up for debate. With a delectable mix of R&B, hip-hop, rock, and pop, Warpaint remain satisfyingly undefinable. B