Monday, September 19, 2011

Album Review: Self-Titled - Wild Flag

I love the new Wild Flag album. I love many things about it: its chops, its messiness, it sense of fun, its immediate timelessness. In fact, I even love this album for what it hasn't done, which is to say become an icon of ghettoized "girls rock".

I love the fact that a group comprised of former members of musically and intellectually uncompromising bands like Sleater-Kinney, Helium and the Minders has been routinely called a "supergroup" by the national media. I love that this hasn't prompted a series of navel-gazing articles about "girls in indie rock." I love that this record has come out the same year as albums by women like Leslie Feist, Annie Clark and Merril Gerbus who were weaned on the kind of punk that SK and Helium made but have now been able to expand that sensibility across genres and audiences to great acclaim. I love that I've been hearing about an album of great music made by women rather than a great girl rock album.

Now I don't think that Wild Flag's debut has suddenly ended sexism in indie rock or anywhere else just like I know that electing Obama didn't end racism (and, let's face it, even a wildly successful record from Merge ain't exactly getting North Carolina to go blue). But reading about this record had made me sit up and appreciate that there are a lot more women making incredible music and getting recognition than there used to be and revel in how much richer music is for it.

As a debut record, Wild Flag is pretty unbeatable. It's the sound of veteran rockers getting together with others of a like mind and recreating everything that's fun and exciting about being in a band. There are a lot of great albums that derive power from being recorded simply, cheaply and quickly. Wild Flag's debut is wonderfully simple but cheap or quick it isn't. The group has been playing since late 2010 and it took the time to record some early singles, road test the material and bond before heading into the studio, which shows. The album is the sound of four people who feel comfortable enough to create amazing art together but haven't been doing it so long that it's lost the fresh, new-band smell.

Having already seen the band give an impressive and agitated live show, I was expecting a album with jagged power chords and piercing solos, but the album delivered was another kind of beast entirely. It's no wonder that Wild Flag has been playing the Stones' "Beast of Burden" live, because Wild Flag owes as much of a sonic debt to '70s FM/AOR radio and the unpretentious noisiness of early garage rock as it does to riot grrrl and Sonic Youth. First of all, Rebecca Cole's keyboards are a much greater presence on record than live and they lend songs like "Romance" and "Electric Band" a late 60's, Small Faces vibe. Janet Weiss's drumming on the other hand, is often more restrained than the Thor-like pounding she delivers on stage. It's not until  "Racehorse" that we hear Weiss hit the heights of her considerable prowess that she flirts with so regularly on Quasi records.
Of course, it's ultimately Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timoney who must do the heavy lifting and they both make shouldering such a burden look effortless. The two frontwomen swap vocals and guitar lines with lighthearted ease. They both manage to sound energetic, impassioned, bouncy and somehow relaxed all at the same time. It's rare that a group sounds so comfortable in its own skin this early on, but the ten song run that is Wild Flag is mostly just an excercise in the band repeatedly teeing up, squaring their bodies and knocking it out of the park (you'll excuse the sports metaphor). The band's confidence and maturation can be seen looking at early singles "Future Crimes" and especially "Glass Tambourine", which have been judiciously tweaked and dirtied up a little for the album. This treatment bring out the former's wiry punk edge and the latter's Jimmy Page DNA and shows subtle but noticeable improvements in just a few months.

A great deal of the album's feeling of comfort and resonance also comes from the fact that most of the songs are built from sturdy rock subjects - love and music. The psychedelic aside "Glass Tambourine" and showstopping anthem "Racehorse" notwithstanding, these songs aren't long or particularly complex. They're about finding joy in another person and finding joy in sound and movement. They're quick and to the point. They have fun, limited solos, driving organs and memorable hooks. "Something Came Over Me" and "Electric Band" are poppy love songs to making music that will inspire countless van tours in the coming decades while "Boom" and "Future Crimes" come faster, hit harder and have even dirtier minds. By the time Brownstein tells you that she's a racehorse and to "put your money on me", it's a redundant request.

While writing about Alex Chilton for her NPR Music blog, Carrie Brownstein remembered about the alienation of touring and how listening to Big Star and the Replacements helped her find a place in her head and in the world.
I knew then that I was part of a continuum; one of longing, of listening, of hoping and of always reaching, both forward to the unknown and back to what I hoped would always be there. And I felt like I'd found my home.
Brownstein, Timony, Weiss and Cole have made an album that is destined to become a beacon and home for those trying to find themselves through music. In the end, that's about all you can hope to say for a rock record.

Something Came Over Me - Wild Flag
Electric Band - Wild Flag
Racehorse - Wild Flag
Buy the album.

And, because I love y'all, here's some live covers.
She's My Best Friend [The Velvet Underground] - Wild Flag
Beast of Burden [The Rolling Stones] - Wild Flag
Ask The Angels [Patti Smith] - Wild Flag

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