by Matt J. Popham
“Hey, hey! Can you feel it?” Carrie Brownstein asks in the opening line of “Romance,” a paean to the power of music that kicks off Wild Flag’s self-titled debut album. One of the album’s strongest tracks, as its thumping, guitar-and-keyboard riff gives way to the infectious, sing-a-long chant of the chorus, you may just find yourself saying, “Damn right, I can!” But when the band declares, in three-part harmony, “We love the sound! The sound is what found us,” it’s hard not to find yourself wondering just whose sound they’re referring to…
In September of last year, Brownstein (33.3% of the tragically defunct Sleater-Kinney) announced on her NPR blog that, after a five year hiatus from music, she and some friends were putting a band together. That prospect alone might have been enough to start music fans salivating, but when the news broke that these friends included Brownstein’s former S-K bandmate, Janet Weiss, Rebecca Cole of The Minders, and indie guitar goddess Mary Timony, excitement levels went through the roof, making this newly formed, all-girl, alt-rock powerhouse the most talked about supergroup of the alternative scene. Before a single note was recorded, Wild Flag’s built-in following had declared their upcoming record a surefire masterpiece and a candidate for Album of the Year.
Of course, that’s the inherent problem with “supergroups”: the mere idea of them sends expectations rocketing skyward, only to have them crash-and-burn when confronted with the all-too-frequently disappointing reality. Rock history is littered with a multitude of all-star efforts amounting to little more than underwhelming curiosities at best and abject failures at worst. Most never evolve beyond short-lived side projects, crumbling under the weight of conflicting egos or dissipating from benign neglect. The few true successes tend to be those that transcend the “supergroup” label entirely (does anyone think of Cream or Crosby, Stills & Nash as “supergroups,” anymore…?), by discovering a new sound and establishing a unique musical identity that eclipses their individual members’ former achievements and acclaim.
So, after a year of hype and hyperbole, now that their debut has finally been unfurled, is Wild Flag worth saluting…? The truth: It’s probably too early to say. But, for now, at least, the legacies of Helium and Sleater-Kinney remain unthreatened.
Which is not to say that Wild Flag is a bad album. Far from it. From start to finish, it’s a fascinating, invigorating listen, full of tonal zigzags and energetic flights of fancy. The hip-shaking pop seduction of “Romance” gives way to the eerier, more cryptic “Something Came Over Me,” which, in turn, explodes into the post-punk desperation of “Boom,” only to be followed by the sprawling, hippies-on-Helium psychedelic jam, “Glass Tambourine,” etc. Throughout, one can’t help but get the feeling that Brownstein and Timony split the songwriting chores almost down the middle, as each alternating tune exhibits trademark elements of one or the other’s wildly different signature styles. You could even be forgiven, at times, for thinking you were listening to a shuffle of b-sides from “One Beat” and “No Guitars.” Which are both fantastic records. But that’s the thing…
While the individual songs are good – even great – and fans of Sleater-Kinney, Helium or The Minders will find much here to savor, at the end of Wild Flag’s 10 songs, it’s still unclear what Wild Flag, the band, is going to sound like. Because what the album captures best is not the sound of a new musical force on the scene, but the sound of four top-notch musicians and unique stylists trying to figure out how exactly they fit together. The results can still be intriguing and rewarding, as in songs like “Short Version” or “Future Crime,” where Timony’s guitar is pushed out of its usual medieval-tinged comfort zone into the wilds of rock ‘n’ roll riffage. But there are also a few awkward collisions. While Janet Weiss’ powerful Keith Moon-style pounding provided the perfect muscle for Sleater-Kinney’s sinewy two-guitar interplay, it is, at times, too heavy and too direct for Timony’s more delicate, idiosyncratic compositions and angular strumming, occasionally weighing them down rather than supporting them. The good news is that the fortunes far outnumber the flaws, but even Wild Flag’s highest points have the texture of stylistic aggregate. Rather than a unified band with a unique voice, Wild Flag is still, at this point, a heterogeneous mixture of individual approaches that have yet to coalesce into a sonic whole.
What keeps Wild Flag, the album, from sounding either too schizophrenic or too familiar is the joyful abandon of all four women as they explore, experiment, share and discover. Unlike Timony’s and Brownstein’s previous collaboration, The Spells, which sometimes came off sounding like two talented gals just messing around, the proceedings here are being taken more seriously, but not so serious as to become ponderous or pretentious. The album is held together by a thematic, rather than musical unity, as each member revels in the freedom and the thrill of being a part of something so new and full of possibility. Almost every song, both lyrically and structurally, can be read as a celebration of music as an inspiration, a solace, a way of life. “Come and join our electric band…” Timony entices on the track of the same name. Boundaries are pushed, past successes are relived, and personal histories and influences are audibly shared. “Endless Talk” with its mix of poppy keyboards and bluesy vocals is surprisingly reminiscent of Robbie Krieger’s Doors numbers. “Racehorse” is a galloping jam that sounds like the MC5 fronted by Patti Smith. All in all, it’s a restless, searching record, but also a fun and fearless one.
Certainly, when it comes to our expectations of supergroups, the case could be made that the fault lies not in our rock stars, but in ourselves that we are underwhelmed. Great musicians, after all, come together to jam out of mutual admiration and a sense of fun, not to make history. But it’s hard, when you have this much talent concentrated in one place, not to hope for something mind-blowing, something life changing, something wholly new and different than anything you’ve heard before. It’s even harder when an album this vital and this passionate displays all the promise and potential inherent in an artistic alliance while falling just short of fulfilling it.
“Chemistry cannot be manufactured or forced,” noted Brownstein on her blog, perhaps acknowledging the inevitable pressures that would be faced by Wild Flag’s stellar ensemble, “But after a handful of practice sessions, spread out over a period of months, I think we all realized that we could be greater than the sum of our parts.” After listening to Wild Flag, the album, it’s clear that she’s correct, even if they’re not quite there yet. After all, if Cream had disbanded after their uneven first album, they’d likely be little more than a musical footnote today, and Wild Flag is already a more consistently enjoyable debut than Fresh Cream. On “Black Tiles,” the album’s soulful, melancholic closer – a beautiful, powerful track that could also be the best indicator of what Wild Flag might sound like when they finally gel – Brownstein acknowledges that, “For all we know, we’re just here for the length of the song.” I, for one, hope that the band’s obvious commitment, both to music and to each other, means they’ll be here a good bit longer than that. Because as enjoyable as it is to hear them celebrate who they are and where they’re from, the most exciting thing about Wild Flag will be discovering who they become and where they’re going. In the meantime, with this first step, they’ve planted a flag worth flying.