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Wild Flag is not a gang of crotchthrusting hard rockers from the 1970s. At least, not until track No. 7.
“Come meet me and we’ll go for a ride in your mind,” sings Mary Timony over a sweltering, sexed-up riff on “Electric Band,” one of several cocky cuts from the band’s debut full-length.
The record represents the astonishing confluence of four varied talents—Sleater-Kinney vets Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, Helium and Soft Power leader (and D.C. resident) Mary Timony, and The Minders’ Rebecca Cole. While all of them have collaborated in various bands over the years, Wild Flag is probably going to surprise the hell out of riot grrrls who haven’t been paying close attention.
Sleater-Kinney’s heavy final album, 2005’s The Woods, is a fairly direct predecessor to Wild Flag: After a couple dips in the hard-rock pool, Sleater-Kinney finally took the plunge—and then disbanded. Anyone down with Helium’s elvish, foggy-mountain vibe on The Magic City, the band’s 1997 career highpoint, already knew Mary Timony had a firm grip on proggy chamber-pop. And The Minders were tight and bright—right at home on quirky Elephant 6 ’til the very end. Wild Flag is an extremely well-crafted, satisfying culmination of all three bands’ final albums.
But this project is uninterested in recreating, say, the wiry anger of Sleater-Kinney’s Call the Doctor, or Helium’s early monotone apathy. Many listeners whose lives were changed by Sleater-Kinney in the 1990s—I’m one of them—may find their minds bursting open once again. But this time, it’ll be because of a couple kick-ass guitar solos.
Opener “Romance,” the album’s single, rollicks, shreds, and explodes in several places at once, but gels via its perfect, earwormy refrains. It’s going to be a formidable competitor on indie-rock journalists’ year-end lists; on first listen, it threatens to set a too-high bar for the rest of the album.
But Wild Flag cracks open a whole chest of gleaming gold nuggets. Among them: Timony’s proggy riff on “Short Version”; Timony and Brownstein’s acid-rock guitar duel on “Glass Tambourine”; Brownstein’s brassy yelps on “Racehorse” (“I’m a racehorse/Yeah, I’m a racehorse/You put your money on me”); and every thrilling moment of Weiss’ airtight, full-throttle drumming, whose power might make you yearn for those Helmet albums you sold to CD/Game Exchange. With its hawkish sound, Wild Flag’s record could have you reconsidering your empathy for toothless subgenres like twee pop, chillwave, and/or anything that isn’t Deep Purple in Rock.
In a way, Wild Flag has made an unintellectual album, but in an indie-music market saturated with lazy microtrends, it’s refreshingly visceral. While some songs meander into psych-rock obliqueness—hat tip to Timony—this is not the stuff of a critical theory seminar. The lyrics vacillate between cool come-ons and hungry, lovesick pleas, often mellowed with pretty oohs and la-la-las. “Electric Band,” slow and muscular, should be Timony’s ring entrance song—or, it should be retroactively added to the Dazed and Confused soundtrack. For fans of Brownstein’s old band, there’s a dollop of spidery Sleater-Kinney tunesmithing, too, except it’s played better—or is it just louder?
Even love songs are delivered with proper urgency. “I want you here, now/I want you here, now/I want you here now/I want you here, right now!” pleads Timony on “Something Came Over Me.” “Boom,” meanwhile, has simple, rock ‘n’ roll swagger: “One, two, three, four/I like the way you move around the floor…five, six, seven, eight/I like the way you make me stay up late.”
Brownstein takes the vocal lead on about half the tracks, channeling Ric Ocasek, Joey Ramone, Chrissie Hynde, and sometimes the emotive sting of Guy Picciotto—but fans know she’s never been a great singer. She doesn’t nail notes, instead hiccuping and shouting in their direction. Timony, for her part, has often sung unadventurously, and she does mostly the same with Wild Flag. But who cares—this ain’t a night at the opera.
Perhaps the most divisive track on the album is “Glass Tambourine,” which wanders beyond the looking glass into some seriously damaged Blue Cheer territory. When that single debuted on NPR earlier this year, fans’ reactions were mixed, probably because few expected an all-out dragon quest. But those people were barking up the wrong tree. Wild Flag has gathered all the kindling from its members’ long careers in rock, and set it magnificently aflame.