“Champion” – Warpaint

Unique, captivating

“Champion” – Warpaint

The singular Los Angeles quartet Warpaint returns after a six-year absence with the wily, elusive “Champion.” Masters of subtle sonic intrigue, the four women in Warpaint work brilliantly together, creating a succinct, unique soundscape that is part groove, part intricate tapestry, overseen by an echoey wash of interweaving vocals singing simple but cryptic lyrics. The effect is captivating.

A great way to approach “Champion” is to focus first on drummer Stella Mozgawa, whose ability to fabricate three-dimensional textures via tone and rhythm is a marvel; to say she single-handedly redefines the concept of rock’n’roll drumming is maybe only a slight overstatement. And if the drums lead the way into the Warpaint sound, the guitars close the sale. You have to wait for them, however. First your ear will note an unhurried, circular riff (shortly past the 30-second mark) that sounds acoustic. It stays for a while, leaves, comes back, never drawing too much attention to itself. The bass edges in, almost preternaturally attuned to the percussion, 10 seconds or so after the guitar. Here is a rhythm section fully deserving of the name, steadily constructing a groove as assured as it is ingenious, sometimes composed as much of space as of sound.

Meanwhile, what about the electronics? The intro was launched by some soft synth sounds, which blend so organically into the background as the song proceeds that they seem nothing that has to be specifically played; they just exist, if that makes sense (which it doesn’t, really). And then: what you’ve been anticipating without realizing it are the electric guitars that slide into the mix around 2:30, all rhythm at first, adding new character to the groove without overwhelming the established vibe.

Finally the payoff: the instrumental coda, arising after the song nearly stops at 3:46, delivering some fuzz, some drone, and a nonchalant lower-register guitar lead à la New Order. The band’s ongoing capacity to unite instrumentally in a manner at once off-handed and disciplined is remarkable. In a world ever (moronically) chasing the latest viral sensation, we too easily neglect the power latent in musicians who have played together for a long time. This band is the real thing.

Warpaint was featured here back in 2010, at the time of their debut album, The Fool. “Champion” is a track from their forthcoming LP Radiate Like This, scheduled for release in May. It will be their first album since 2016’s Heads Up, and–for a band in existence since 2004–only their fourth full-length release to date. MP3 via KEXP.

Free and legal MP3: Theater Kids (Enticing groove, accomplished debut)

Musicians that have enough confidence in their material so that they don’t have to fill our ears with sounds in every moment are usually worth paying attention to.

“Pratfall” – Theater Kids

Delectably groovy and smoothly melodic, “Pratfall” is an accomplished debut single from Philadelphia duo Theater Kids, fronted by Benny Williams. Call me a sucker for a classic chord progression, but here we have a well-known harmonic pattern wrapped in a wonderful sort of DIY sleekness (an oxymoron? actually not) which is right in my wheelhouse.

There’s something wonderfully old-school in how the introduction slowly builds the song’s soulful sound-world in way in which each addition seems inevitable, and with Williams’ vocal entrance, at 0:32, feeling as much like a resolution as an opening salvo. The lyrics are set against the back end of each measure, creating that enticing little space at the end of each line where the new measure starts musically but not lyrically. A lot of presence is created here without a lot of sonic embellishment; one of the beautiful things this song does is allow a certain amount of space around the notes being played (the bass offers a particularly lithe example). Musicians that have enough confidence in their material so that they don’t have to fill our ears with sounds in every moment are usually worth paying attention to.

I would like to articulate why this sort of chill but steady groove, these sorts of carefully laid-together textures, combined with a sterling melody, affect my ears so much much more positively than the beat-centric, effects-heavy tunes, so often about the most surface-oriented subjects, that dominate both the hipster blogs and the pop charts. (This has been an unprecedented alliance; that’s food for a separate post.) But there’s probably no useful way to put this into words. It all would appear to come down to individual taste; but, what I guess I’m always on guard against is when individual tastes have been unduly shaped and warped by larger, profit-oriented interests. Paul Weller said it most incisively a generation ago, in a song in which the lyrics initially say “The public gets what the public wants,” only to have the line flipped later, as a conclusion: “The public wants what the public gets.” The internet has made this an all the more unwieldy and complicated situation, combining technology that can make and record music without regard to an individual’s actual musical talents, with algorithms that amplify surreptitiously, and with an audience now trained to respect and notice quantity more than quality at every turn.

I digress. This is all to say that underneath “Pratfall” I sense human and musical intelligence, and I want to remember to applaud that as often as possible. I am happy to know there are individuals out there who can absorb today’s inputs and influences and still create something that feels removed from the thoughtless hubbub of SoundCloud uploads and Spotify links.

“Pratfall” was released in September. Theater Kids have released a second song, “Echoes,” earlier this month. Check everything out via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the download.

Free and legal MP3: Lauran Hibberd (terrific rocker w/ old-school crunch)

With satisfying, old-school crunch, “Hoochie” is the kind of song that reacquaints the ear with how simple and vital a rock song can yet be, here in our beleaguered 21st century.

Lauran Hibberd

“Hoochie” – Lauran Hibberd

With satisfying, old-school crunch, “Hoochie” is the kind of song that reacquaints the ear with how simple and vital a rock song can yet be, here in our beleaguered 21st century: guitars still excite, catchy and uncomplicated melodies still delight, and can still be put in service of sardonic young folks, especially those possessed of the right combination of charisma and purpose, as young Isle of Wight singer/songwriter Lauran Hibberd surely is. (And that’s no typo: it’s Lauran with an “a.”)

One of the main glories of rock’n’roll, well illustrated by “Hoochie,” is how musical strength renders all in its path worthy of attention. I’m not sure, for instance, that the lyrics here would be all that impressive if stripped from the music and read aloud, but the point is that this doesn’t matter in the slightest. Riding on top of this heroic groove, nestled in their textured setting, and delivered with Hibberd’s casual aplomb, the words acquire a primal sort of substance that supersedes precise meaning on the one hand, and then (this is the extra magic) delivers a new level of meaning on the other. I’m not sure I can explain this properly, but for me, the lyrics in a great rock song often don’t need to be paid close attention to and yet, then, as they present as an intrinsic part of the sonic experience, become great in their own inscrutable way. This is why it’s not often necessary to pay close attention to lyrics, even as the words nonetheless become a pivotal part of the final package.

Anyway, give this one a few listens and maybe you’ll sense that extra magic going on here too. If I were still tracking my Top 10 songs of the year, I have no doubt that this would end up there in December. You can check out all of Hibberd’s releases, six songs to date, on SoundCloud. “Hoochie” is her latest and, to my ears, best—so far.

Free and legal MP3: Fossa (a circular non-stop stream of a song)

As gentle as it is insistent, “Five Days” feels intriguingly like a song with neither a beginning nor an ending.


“Five Days” – Fossa

As gentle as it is insistent, “Five Days” feels intriguingly like a song with neither a beginning nor an ending. We are enveloped in a warm, tick-tock groove before we quite get our bearings, and when the words start they tumble out in an unflagging stream, leaving singer Louis Shadwick with few obvious places to breathe. The concept of a verse or a chorus is quickly irrelevant here, as the words pour into a circular, sing-songy pattern that manages to seem on the one hand almost spoken and amelodic and on the other hand a fully engaging melody. This is a really unusual and captivating song masquerading as no big deal.

And while there can be few young British rock bands, whichever still exist at this point, that aren’t (rightfully) influenced (and/or intimidated) by the large shadow cast ahead of them by Radiohead, Fossa strikes me as wearing the influence as lightly and creatively as just about any I’ve heard. The band’s blending of acoustic and electric is managed so that you barely notice they’ve plugged anything in at all—at least until an honest-to-goodness electric guitar shows up at the two-minute mark and just about steals the show with its lovely, meticulous line. Although the meandering but purposeful chord progression that precedes the guitar (starting at 1:32) is pretty great too, as is the guitar again, later, when it turns clangy and anarchic.

Fossa is a London-based quartet. “Five Days” is the lead track off their debut release, a four-song EP entitled Sea of Skies. You can listen to it and buy it at Bandcamp.

Free and legal MP3: Lux Lisbon (soulful, w/ 4-part harmonies)

What stands out here is the unabashed effort to make inclusive, crowd-friendly music.

Lux Lisbon

“Get Some Scars” – Lux Lisbon

With its vocal-heavy arrangement and its conspicuous soulfulness, “Get Some Scars” not only sounds like little you hear in the air in the 21st century’s second decade, it sounds like a protest against a musical age known more for its robotic technological frills and hype-oriented gimmickry than for passionate musical prowess. And let me quickly add that there are of course many independent musicians today who with equal passion and prowess stand in opposition to the horror of today’s auto-tuned top 40 and its pea-brained lyrical concerns. But what stands out here is the unabashed effort to make inclusive, crowd-friendly music. And what a relief it is to remember that inclusive, crowd-friendly music can at least sometimes, still, sound so easy and so affecting. “Get Some Scars” is big without being loud, simple without being insipid, smooth without being formulaic.

The secret to its success is, I think, its groove. This is a serious groove, but an elusive one.The bass more often sings and sustains rather than plucks in the funky style often associated with grooves. Percussion takes a backseat to vocal harmonies. This is it seems a groove created and fed by the swinging, swaying momentum of the melody, and driven home by the vocal layers, as emphatic as they are organic. (The band recruited an extra singer to help front man Stuart Rook with the four-part harmonies.) My ear keeps telling me that the melodic interval that repeats, both in the verse and the chorus, somehow feeds the groove—it’s a major third, four semitones apart, and heard most clearly at the start of the chorus (1:27), with the words, “Oh while we’re young,” each syllable bouncing the interval top to bottom and back again, and with great swing, and all those harmonies. And right here is where the otherwise slippery lyrics solidify into a true moment, words and music coalescing into something larger than either:

Oh while we’re young, yeah, let’s go out and get some scars
‘Cause when we’re older we wear them to tell us apart

Lux Lisbon is a five-piece band founded in Nottingham and now based in London. The band’s name is one of the sisters in the Jeffrey Eugenides novel The Virgin Suicides. “Get Some Scars” is their latest single, released last month. You can listen to their debut album, released in January, via Bandcamp. Thanks to the band for the MP3. And in case this relates to any of your schedules this weekend, Lux Lisbon will be playing at the Bestival on the Isle of Wight, on Sunday night.