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Live review: Warpaint at the Troubadour

December 12, 2010 |  1:13 pm

Something strange happened to Warpaint in 2010. All of the things that the white-hot local quartet were known for –- wispy, witchy harmonies and electric-guitar lines as delicate as spun sugar -– suddenly succumbed to more primal pleasures.

If 2009’s “Exquisite Corpse” e.p. was all about an ominous, trebly mist, then Warpaint’s 2010’s debut album for Rough Trade, “The Fool” –- and the band's sold-out Friday-night set at the Troubadour (a second sold-out show is on Sunday) -- drew its power from drums, bass and the body’s baser impulses. Their ephemeral melancholy is now channeled from something much older and scarier.

Not coincidentally, this makes them a much better band, one finally and truly set apart from the arty, obscurist Eastside rock bands. Thank “The Fool’s” producer, Tom Biller, for encouraging this instinct; thank new drummer Stella Mozgawa (maybe the most creative and precise percussionist in L.A. indie rock right now) and the new-found assertiveness from quietly excellent bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg. But whatever changed for the band, Warpaint finally has conjured the sound that it seems to have been scratching in the dark for years to find.

Fortunately, the band also tempers it with a goofball streak onstage. Though singer-guitarists Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman cut the Cure-damaged Echo Parker pose, during breaks from their spiderweb-y playing on incantatory tracks such as “Bees,” they pull out the R&B moves and mock-catcall each other from across the stage. They have a song called “Warpaint” -- clearly band members don’t take themselves as seriously as their music’s creeping dread might imply.

Ldbtlnnc But when that bit of evil sneaks up, it stays with you. Take the somber but soulful guitar-and-voice number “Baby,” where Kokal sings sweet nothings that can chill a room. “Don’t you call anyone else baby,” she whispers. “You live your life like a page from the book of my fantasy.” If that couple ever were to break up, the offending party should probably check under the bed at night. But Warpaint writes willful submission well.

The band even has a couple of real pop singles in “Undertow” and “Elephants.” The former is a tricky thing, catchy but hazy and minimal in its first minute. But it soon crystallizes into a dozen lovely fragments of voice and rhythm, like a smashed stained-glass window. Mozgawa re-imagined the longtime fan favorite “Elephants” as a panic button, where the hook of “I’ll break your heart to keep you far from where all dangers start” feels less like a promise than an unraveling lie.

It wasn’t always this way. Even as recently as “Exquisite Corpse,” Warpaint was still an underachiever (and members had an undeserved rep as dilettantes –- Kokal dated former Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, and their original drummer was Lindberg’s sister, actress Shannyn Sossamon). Lindberg can serrate a syncopated bass line, but they never let her; Kokal and Wayman often mistook half-finished arrangements for evocative negative space.

But no more. “Composure,” one of the band's best tracks, felt like a purposeful rebuttal to that reputation. It began with a wispy, lyric-mangled gang chorus but soon careened into an amphetamine-fueled, jungle-inspired tangle of perfectly moving parts. “How can I keep my composure,” Warpaint asked, over and over, like a desperate mantra in the face of something either joyful or devastating.

-- August Brown

Top photo: Warpaint, including bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg, center. Credit: Christina House / For The Times.

Bottom photo: Warpaint's Stella Mozgawa performs on the drums in a sold out show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood on Friday, December 10, 2010. Credit: Christina House / For The Times