Label: Merge Records
Wild Flag has been termed a “supergroup” a little too often for my taste. Yes, from an indie rock standpoint, the terminology fits. The band’s membership includes Mary Timony of Autoclave, Helium and a respectable solo career, Rebecca Cole of the Minders and, perhaps most notably, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney. This is the starting lineup for someone’s fantasy rock band team from about ten years ago. But the “supergroup” designation carries a certain implication that these are musicians just fucking around apart from their more serious day jobs. That would make Wild Flag the rough modern equivalent of Asia, the Firm or, Nick Cave save us all, Power Station. That unnecessarily diminishes the quality of the music Wild Flag presents on their self-titled debut album. As evidenced by the fierce, focused, thoroughly intoxicating songs carved into their record, Wild Flag is a terrific band, no other inflating hyperbole needed.
Given that one-half of the band was once two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, it’s reasonable that bygone touchstone piledrivers of the Pacific Northwest loom large. More than any other precursor group that can be pointed to – including Weiss’s own Quasi – Sleater-Kinney leaps to mind throughout Wild Flag’s album, Brownstein’s fiery guitar work and Weiss’s thunderous, unfailing drumbeat rhythm standing as the chief barometer of the new group. The material is less like the dense, layered music Sleater-Kinney created on the last couple of extraordinary albums, however, and closer to punchy, punky songs such as “Stay Where You Are” or “You’re No Rock n’ Roll Fun” that showed up on earlier efforts. It’s as if Brownstein and Weiss, freed from expectations to continue developing an established sound, reached back to the music they started with and simply tried to keep carving away at that sound until they got it just right.
The whole album is like a continually flexing muscle, pushing the sound harder and stronger as if trying to blast a guitar-shaped hole in the back wall. There’s no room for something as bland and wispy as a ballad here, not when there are grinding chords to be played and delicious, driving melodies to be presented, deconstructed and then rebuilt to be held up for fresh adoration. It starts with opening track and lead single “Romance,” which ingeniously incorporates verbal repetition to emphasize the rhythm and hook of the song. It moves to the beat of a racing heart as Brownstein shouts out lyrics such as, “Hey you got me crawlin’/ You got me spinnin’/ Shake, shimmy, shake” that capture the head-spinning sensations of not just fresh love, but rock ‘n’ roll itself. At its best, a great rock song feels like it can change anything – it can surely shift a mood from dour to joyous as quickly as a person can rap two drumsticks together four times – and “Romance” is a great rock song.
It’s surely not the only great song on the album. It’s overloaded with them. “Boom” hits with the impact of its title (and I’m never really going to be able to resist a song as direct as this, with it’s count-off lyrics: “One, two, three, four/ And the way you move around the floor” followed by “Five, six, seven, eight/ And the way you make me stay up late“) and “Something Came Over Me” manages to sound both sweet and menacing at the same time. Can you ask anything more than the latter of a rock song?
Any risk that the album’s tracks might sound like mere hobby efforts for musicians preoccupied with other endeavors is firmly wiped out by the easy ambition of the songs. They could have churned out a dozen variations on familiar aggressive surges of guitar washes and sold a copy to every fan still heartbroken over Sleater-Kinney’s break-up five years ago. Instead, the album is marked by the quartet pushing into new territory together. “Endless Talk” shifts with a snaky assurance that’s set off by little punctuations of tinny organ, and “Racehorse” builds into one of those shattering epics of wailing endurance that Patti Smith used to thread onto albums just to prove that she was indeed mightier than anyone else who stepped into a recording studio.
According to Brownstein, it was never a certainty that this specific assemblage of musicians would turn into a full-fledged band when they first got together. It was an experiment; they’d see where it led. The songs on Wild Flag’s debut are evidence enough that they’re serious and they’re committed to making excellent music together. One thing’s for certain: it damn well is rock ‘n’ roll fun.