Within the first fifteen seconds of Warpaint’s eponymous second album, there’s a slight miscue that causes one of the musicians to audibly holler and then apologize. Drummer Stella Mozgawa restarts her beat, and for the next 50 minutes, the band never looks back.
That’s one of the few moments of levity on an album that maintains austerity throughout, but one that is never too stiff as to diminish its entertainment value.
Long gone are the easygoing summer breezes of the Los Angeles indie rock band’s earlier songs like “Billie Holliday” from the group’s debut EP “Exquisite Corpse.” Rather, their sophomore full-length doubles down on the art-rock intrigue hinted at on debut full-length “The Fool.”
“Warpaint” plays like the indie rock soundtrack to a spy film.
Melodies intersect and wrap around themselves. Time signatures switch up at a moment’s notice, particularly with Mozgawa’s percussion. All four female members contribute vocals that are soaked with a nocturnal haze of reverb. On first listen, speculating on what’s coming next is a losing battle.
The album’s production, spearheaded by Flood (whose resume includes work with U2, Depeche Mode, and PJ Harvey) and Nigel Godrich (Radiohead) often leaves lyrics indiscernible, but always at the forefront.
Maybe “Warpaint” has nothing to hide, but gives the impression it’s doing so anyways. The contradictory refrain of the lead single “Love is to Die” reinforces the notion that the band is never quite forthright: “Love is to die / Love is to not die.”
The song concludes the terrific opening trilogy of uptempo tracks characterized by zigzagging guitar notes and sporadic percussion like on standout “Keep it Healthy.”
The majority of the remaining tracks on “Warpaint” are midtempo, though the band picks up the pace a bit during the album’s second half with “Disco//Very,” a song earmarked by a-melodically chanted dance groove, and the airy “Feeling Alright.”
Sparser songs are characterized by a single instrument taking center stage: bass guitar on “Hi,” tribal drums on “Go In,” synthesizer on “Biggy.” The album’s cohesion is credit to Flood’s production skills in spite of the instrumental singularities of the individual songs.
“Warpaint” provides a nebulous yet fascinating listen as a whole, one that is best not dissected into its separate tracks. Fifty minutes, much of them at a leisurely pace, might be plenty to ask of listeners in this day and age. But stick with it and you’ll find Warpaint has crafted one of the first great albums of 2014.