1995 – Music website Pitchfork launches
2001 – Apple released the first iPod
2003- Social networking site MySpace launches
The relevance of these three events you ask? For me they are three key events in the digitisation of the music industry.
With the launch of Pitchfork and similar online music sites the traditional printed media found a new competition. Where magazines like the NME, Uncut and Smash Hits whilst aimed at entirely different ages and styles all came under attack from a new form of communication. Taking away the need for the consumer to pay for physical copies created a free alternative. With this new media also came a greater freedom of interaction, via message boards and comment sections the reader was given an instant interaction and the ability to feed back quickly their own opinions.
The release of the iPod had an impact on the industry in many ways. The initial impact was simply to allow people to compress there entire music collection into something they could fit into their pocket. Freeing us from the day of heavy cd wallets, or those ridiculous portable grammar phones it gave a generation the freedom to transport and share music with ease. It also sadly crushed the poor old mini-disc player an invention that couldn’t have been more badly timed if it tried. The secondary impacts were considerably more surprising and challenging for the music industry. With cd’s being ripped onto PC’s everywhere there was always going to be a challenge, yes people had been burning cd’s and sharing them previously but the ease of transfer led to the illegal downloading boom, something the industry struggled to control. It also led to the rise of the legal download through sites like iTunes new music was only a click away whether you wanted to pay for it or not. Indirectly this boom in illegal downloading led the industry to review the entire way they gave the consumer music, the rise of streaming sites whilst in many ways a challenger to the mp3 player was also a result of it’s development. The industry still continues to battle to control the portable media without loosing the value of music as we know it.
Social networking was perhaps not invented by MySpace but it was the first site that caught on to the extent it did, one of the major reasons for this was it’s focus on music. By allowing musicians everywhere to upload their music to a public hungry for fresh, new sounds, MySpace created a whole new brand of music distribution. Whilst previously bands needed a deal to be heard, now they needed to be heard to get a deal. A band only became worthwhile when they had so many thousand “friends” on MySpace. Famous examples like The Arctic Monkeys, got the fans first and the sales after. Arguably this affect had the biggest knock on affect on small independent labels, with more bands willing to go it alone it became decreasingly important to have the backing and money on offer from labels, and ironically reduced the amount of moneys labels had to spend. Whilst MySpace has all but died a death now, it’s impact and the sense of freedom it created still hangs over the industry to this day. It’s legacy cemented, it’s impact undeniable.
For richer, for poorer. For better, for worse. The digital age caught up with the music industry and arguably created the biggest change since the invention of the vinyl record, or the amplifier. The industry to this day is left scratching it’s head and scrabbling around for the answer to the age old question, what makes people buy records?
Always a good bet, is four pretty girls who play their own instruments, are incredibly stylish and write their own songs. Though as Dead Disco and The Donnas can attest, not even that’s enough sometimes. How about being featured on every music site going? It didn’t do much for the sales of The Boxer Rebellion or Wu Lyf. How about signing for an iconic label? Well The Veils signed for Rough Trade and Crispy Ambulance put stuff out on Factory Records. On top of that being talented alone has never been enough or Wham! would never have sold any records!
The mystery of the music industry prevail….but surely if you’ve got all three of those corners covered, and a spectacularly good first album you’re onto a winner…so Warpaint your albums going to have to be pretty bloody awful to cock this one up….
WARPAINT – WARPAINT
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” as Alexander Pope famously said, on their debut album, The Fool, Warpaint didn’t do a whole lot of rushing anywhere. There’s was a slow burning, gently meandering, unravelling sort of sound. They, perhaps more than any other band, were the forerunners of what many called a shoegaze revolution. I would say that was milking the point, but back in the latter half of 2010 many were won over by their fantastic debut.
Following that up was never going to be easy, a fact perhaps demonstrated by how long they’ve been away. Over three years later, only now are we finally hearing what the band decided to do next. There are many reasons why second albums can take some time. It’s always worth remembering you have a lifetime to write your debut, the pressures of touring, record labels and a demanding public insist you crack on with the second. Add to that a conundrum that has baffled and beaten many bands, that is whether to stick or twist. Some plough right on and make a second almost identical to their first (see The Strokes or Tame Impala) others rip up the template and come back with a whole new style (Joanne Newsom or Wild Beasts) still more try a sort of gentle evolution, prodding and tweaking their sound in an attempt to appease those who came before and attract those who haven’t. It’s a cliche but the second album genuinely isn’t easy!
Whatever the reason for the delay, if the second album lived up to the considerable success of their debut, fans and critics alike would forgive them. Opening track (the suitably titled Intro) is a rather odd beast. Starting off (as many reviewers have pointed out) with drummer Stella Mozgawa messing up a drum fill, it leads to the slightly odd fact that the first word on Warpaint is “sorry”. What follows on the opening track implies a band with nothing to be sorry about! It’s a thrilling instrumental piece. The drums are bristling with energy. Guitars, bass and synths entwine beautifully. It creates their trademark atmospheric sound, but also fizzes with energy and an almost threatening atmosphere. The fact it grinds to a halt short of becoming a fully blown song is a great shame.
Less exciting is the rest of the first half of the album, lead single “Love Is To Die” aside. “Keep It Healthy” starts off nice enough with some nice guitar interplay reminiscent of Interpol, the opening drum sound is fantastic for which the producers and Stella deserve credit in equal measures. It’s let down by a problem that underpins much of the albums opening salvo. It meanders along nicely enough but doesn’t go anywhere, there’s no hook here, nothing to pin your hat on as memorable and exciting.
“Hi” again starts promisingly, a rumbling bass line which has a touch of The Bad Seeds and is just as creepy. Is cut through with synthesised drum, which add a crackling, metronomic quality. They’re a nice touch, and when the organic drums come in later into the track it gives the whole thing a much needed lift. However the laconic vocals, and low rumbling bassy sound are never far off and again it meanders pleasantly enough without reaching any conclusion, in fact the whole track is probably two minutes too long. It’s frustrating because there’s a lot to like here. By the time you’ve reached “Biggy” you’re really struggling to remember what’s happened and you’re halfway through the album. Again it’s pleasant enough kicking off with a gorgeous agro synth, and the whole thing build nicely to a vocal, which sadly is all too predictable. From there it builds up to a high, howled vocal, which just as you want it to go somewhere new it just meanders away to little of note. It’s not a criticism of Emily Kokal’s superb singing voice, there’s just too much restraint on show and there’s a lack of memorable vocal melody. It’s just all too pleasant! The songs saving grace is the outro, with a lovely synth line that’s reminiscent of The Cure. None of these opening tracks are by themselves bad, but together they’re just dense and forgettable. Stick with it though people! The rewards are just around the corner…
Breaking up this trio is the albums lead single, “Love Is To Die” it’s not that it’s an antithesis of the other tracks it’s just that it’s better. It’s very much the Warpaint we know and love. It wouldn’t sound at all out of place on The Fool. The vocal harmonies are stunning, from the cooed ooh’s of the intro to the jaunty (by their standards) chorus line “Love is to die, love is to not die, love is to dance” it’s a reminder of how when they marry their naturally gorgeous sound to a big hook they are a band of the highest quality and incredibly catchy. They’re improved musicians from The Fool too, the playing is tighter and more adventurous, the bass of Jenny Lee Lindberg is a treat throughout the album.
For a band to open with a series of long, languid tracks without a hint of pop is quite refreshing for a band who are now a fairly major player on the indie scene. What’s less forgivable is the lack of variety between songs and more so within songs. What makes the whole thing forgivable is the second half of the album…it’s wonderful!
From “Teese” in we get variety, quality and some brilliant, brilliant music! Starting with a gentle acoustic line “Teese” instantly jumps out. They’re a band who’ve always sounded wonderful when they do the whole stripped back thing, as shown previously on The Fool’s Baby or Billie Holiday from the Exquisite Corpse EP that started it all. The bass has a bouncy almost reggae feel to it, and despite the fact the vocal goes “nanananana” they sound pained and heartbroken without even a hint of Kaiser Chief’s about it. The vocals start off melodiously repeating the line “I want more now” but as the song progresses Emily sounds increasingly anguished and agitated and the vocals progress to a yelp as the drums pick up the pace. It’s a superb example of slowly evolving your sound, it’s exactly what you want from a second album!
“Disco/Very” is even more of a departure from their past. Opening with the line “I’ve got a friend with a melody that will kill” what’s instantly noteworthy is the treatment of the vocals. Where usually bathed in reverb here they’re drier and closer to reality, it works! As they progress to a group singing style there’s more than a hint of riot girl about it. The bass groove is prominent and propels the song along beautifully. They’ve never sounded like they’re having so much fun! As a cowbell kicks in the whole thing’s got a lovely post-punk sound. “I need to take a break” they yelp, as if the 3 years between albums wasn’t break enough, pfft rockstars eh?! Well I guess if they’re making music this good I might let them have a holiday, it’s different, effective and ultimately superb.
“Feeling Alright”, “CC” and “Drive” are classic, woozy Warpaint numbers. The trademark sounds remains but punctuated by the greater variation around them they sound fresh and almost breezy compared to some of the earlier, trudgier number. Yes there’s not much new here, but who cares if it sounds good?
“Go In” starts with a creepy, dark rhythm that, believe it or not, sounds a touch like Tom Waits! Throughout the guitar line, matches the vocal melody which is a clever trick, adding a strange texture, and almost making it sounds like the lead vocal is being stalked by a bassy distorted second voice, in reality it’s not human at all. Clever tricks aside what really makes this track work is that the singing is never short of spectacular. Is there any band in the world today with a better selection of voices? They’re just incredibly talents! The production too is clever, while a slow Warpaint track is normally coated in a washy haze, here it’s a crisp, clear sound, again they’re slowly twisting and distorting the picture rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Closing track “Son” is again a revelation. It’s starts off life as a piano ballad. Gently plodding chords, with a gorgeous vocal over the top. The vocals while often distant and other worldly here are sung with great emotion, you get the feeling the subject matter is close to her heart, though the lyrics don’t give a great deal away. “Standing in the garden, got my number from the one that says go, leave the son alone” I can’t tell you what it means but it sounds heartfelt and truthful. The drums kick in and they’re spectacular, gentle, military drums adding a marching quality and complimenting the guitar perfectly. “You can see a reason why your story is not over, leave the son alone, I’m on my way back home” Emily coo’s, there’s clear references to children, but whether this is an imaginary child or a real one, I wouldn’t want to speculate. It’s a classic example of music’s ability to move through a raw emotive, stripped back sound. It’s spectacular!
So where does it leave us? One half is meandering, lacking ideas, lacking melodies. The other bristling with energy, ideas and creativity. As disappointed as I was by the first half, ultimately music is about the highs, you can forgive any amount of bad songs for a spectacular one. The second half of the album is so wonderful it more than makes up for it. Frankly “Son” and “Teese” alone would make this album worth buying. Is it a brilliant album, no, but it bodes well for the future, I don’t doubt for one second Warpaint have a truly brilliant album in them, for now a few brilliant tunes will more than do
Warpaint by err Warpaint is out now on Rough Trade Records