Bands that have let me down. A short list. Back to the eighties. The Thompson Twins, at my first gig, I was a late starter in 1983. Playing at the Hammersmith Palais supported by Tears For Fears. Previously a hip underground multi-membered vaguely anarchist and underground concern. I saw them just at the point when they'd slimmed down to the three piece that conquered a fair part of the world over the following years. Much of their performance was taped, an early introduction for me to the cynicism of the outside world. Musically or otherwise.
Simple Minds at round about the same time. Just after New Gold Dream '81,'82,'83,84, the culmination of all their wondrous early journey they decided to leave the path for the highway to become a bloated stadium rock entity in the shadow of U2. Still a crying shame, considering the enormous, already achieved potential of that record and the altogether different possibilities it offered them to the route they chose to take.
The eponymous fifth album of Echo & the Bunnymen with an almost air-brushed close up of the band on the sleeve and a series of over-produced rock songs that lacked the spark, mystery and poetry of the records that preceded them as they looked to the States, (rather than their own shores which their early albums had been so informed by), in the hope of a commercial pay off rather than the artistic glory they had initially come together to strive for. Put them in the same category as the Thompson Twins and Simple Minds. Different shades of selling out.
And so, three decades along down the line, to Warpaint. Six years ago they were quite majestic. Their debut album The Fool was out and I saw them shortly afterwards, at the venue just round the corner from my place and they were quite wonderful in every respect. From their pre-gig playlist from which I remember hearing XTC's Science Friction and Neil Young's Barstool Blues to the show itself where they played the majority of The Fool. Just eleven songs, according to the Setlist website but it felt like much more given the hugely immersive experience of their performance. They felt like one of the best bands in the world that night. I feel that I never really need to see them again as they could never outdo themselves. At least for me.
Immersive is the adjective I always come back to with Warpaint when they are at their best. It still is and occasionally even with their new album, released recently, they still achieve that experience. One of my lifetime ambitions is to spend an hour or so in a flotation tank and their music would be the best imaginable soundtrack to that. Distinctively feminine expression, this music could never be made by men. Avoiding the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus structures their songs are dreamscapes, instruments, voices and studio hum weaving in and out of one another.
It's very much an expression of the alternative LA West Coast of America sensibility. The desert is certainly there as are two California precedents; the Doors, most particularly The Doors of The End and also strangely the Red Hot Chili Peppers, not a band I have a particular personal fondness for, but their influence is here, (listen to the chanting intro and outro to Composure, if you're seeking evidence), but most obviously in the basslines of Jenny Lee Lindberg, which tell of hours listening to Flea and his own musical mentor, PiL's Jah Wobble.
Wobble is another good reference point as Warpaint are also strangely an update of late seventies/ early eighties artistic sensibility. Keith Levine and John McGeoch's imprint are there too in the clashing, chiming and occasionally discordant guitar shapes of Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman. Meanwhile, Australian drummer Stella Mozgawa patterns a shifting rhythmic basis for proceedings. Often labelled an Art Rock band, and for once it's a tag that makes some sense as the music of The Fool is all about exploration. It's also informed by drug, dance and rave culture, tribal rhythms. A desert festival, a twenty first century communal experience.
The Fool could be classed 'samey' I suppose but then that's half the point of it. Songs don't necessarily leap out of the mix but then neither does anything drop below the high bar they set themselves. It's all mood and no hit single and all the better for it. Tom Verlaine praised them to the heavens, an unlikely occurrence as he's noticeably grudging in terms of offering compliments to other musicians. It's apt. The band sound absolutely nothing like Television but are working to a similar goal. The record is evidence that the conventional rock four piece of guitars, bass and drums are not yet redundant, but are still brimming with potential when channeled creative and imaginatively and supplemented by studio effects that plant them in a modern setting rather than merely trying to replicate the musical glories of previous generations. This was a lesson Television understood when recording Marquee Moon and Warpaint are similarly dexterous on The Fool
In terms of lyrical concerns, your guess is as good as mine. There's love, sensuality and desire, there's the difficult, twist and turns that young relationships take, there's some West Coast philosophy and therapy concerns. Very few lyrics make complete coherent sense but the band were sufficiently proud of them to include them in the vinyl package I bought yesterday to complement and probably supersede the CD version I already have. In any respect they fit. The whole record fits.
So, how have Warpaint let me down? As Thompson Twins, Simple Minds and the Bunnymen did before them? Perhaps only in the respect that I don't feel they've put out anything remotely as good as this since. For not realising quite how good this is. For taking the road they've chosen rather than others they might have taken.For not consistently hitting these heights.
While The Fool is not altogether a masterpiece, it would probably need to reel in one of the excellent songs from 2009's mini-album Exquisite Corpse, (also a superb record), for that status, possibly their early gem Billie Holiday, still my favourite song of theirs. The Fool regardless is still a quite wonderful statement! Perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe the point is that Warpaint already realised their potential here. For that at least, I'll always be grateful. It's a record that will last.