Words by Brian Salvatore
There is something remarkable about people who are great long after having anything to prove.
Carrie Brownstein led Sleater-Kinney through one of the most revered careers of their generation: they never sold out, kept evolving, and quit while they were still relevant and great. If she decided to put music in her rear view mirror and just focused on her music journalism for NPR and her “too funny for a musician” comedy skills on Portlandia, no one would have blamed her.
And for a few years, that is exactly what she did.
However, at some point Brownstein felt she “needed” music again, and set out to assemble a new band, which eventually became Wild Flag. She recruited former Sleater-Kinney/Jicks drummer Janet Weiss, Helium guitarist Mary Timony, and Rebecca Cole from the Minders and set out to write some songs and play some shows. The shows (and singles released early in 2011) created a buzz that made Wild Flag one of the most anticipated releases of the year. However, nothing could have prepared me for hearing the record for the first time.
“Romance” kicks the album off with a guitar/keyboard riff that evokes everything great about music from 1978, from In Through the Out Door to This Year’s Model. The riff is followed by Weiss’s thundering drums, which herald Brownstein’s impassioned vocals, and serve as the warning bell for Timony’s surf-guitar licks. When the chorus kicks in with its tight harmonies and minor key undertones, the melody line both sang and plucked out by Timony’s lead guitar brings the song to an almost child-like singsong place. The lyrics are a statement of empowerment of both the listener and the players – we are choosing each other, and that is to be celebrated. The inclusive nature of the lyrics and the varied sounds truly invite the listener into the record.
From there, the album starts to develop its formula: guitar interplay, lyrics about music, pounding drums, voices mingling, and Cole’s keyboard acting as the insulation, keeping everything from leaking out. Timony’s guitar has a classic rock feel, which mashes well against Brownstein’s primal punk rock playing. Weiss as a drummer evokes Keith Moon of the Who, probably the closest link between punk and classic rock, so she is the perfect fit behind the kit.
I usually have a rule that rock and roll songs about rock and roll are destined to fail before they start. However, this record is the sound of Brownstein and co. reaffirming their love of playing in a band, and so this isn’t a lazy “Old Time Rock and Roll” type of album that looks back on when music was better than it is now; this is a record about music being something supremely important to both listeners and creators.
The album also does well to diversify its sound throughout; “Glass Tambourine” has a spooky, ethereal breakdown with voices and keyboard creating a pattern that gets built upon and built upon until it collapses into a trippy jam at the end. “Endless Talk” carries over the surf vibe from “Romance” and turns it up a notch, where Cole’s keyboard line sounds straight out of 1963. “Short Version” starts out with the closest thing to bass this album has, and eventually unfurls a guitar line that is smooth in tone, rhythmically in the pocket, sonically unexpected and daring – it is the high point of an already fantastic guitar record.
The album doesn’t let up throughout – in fact, the back-end might be even catchier and more fully realized than the first half. The songs grow longer and the instrumental sections drag on a little more as the album draws to a close. The more complex songs make the fact that the album was recorded totally live, save for the vocals, even more impressive. The energy and proficiency on this album are rarely, if ever, found together; the live recording helped the former, and probably made the latter more of a challenge. However, the record exceeds any limitations the recording process placed on it.
As someone who has been buying records from various members of this band for 15 years, I can honestly say that this ranks among the best work each member has done previously. This is an exceptionally strong debut and, hopefully, the start of a long career for Wild Flag. It is also a reminder that in the detached from emotion world of indie rock, it can be okay to sing about how much we love something and not feel guilty about having emotional responses. There is zero snark here, and that is as welcome a revelation as the music.
© September 13th, 2011
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