, October 18th, 2011 05:17
It's quite unlikely any of the members of Wild Flag would ever openly admit to being part of a 'supergroup', but it's a word that nonetheless keeps cropping up in connection with this, the quartet's highly-anticipated eponymous debut album. Okay, so we're not talking the Traveling Wilburys here, or Blind Faith or even A Perfect Circle; none of the members of Wild Flag are what you would call household names. But two of them used to be in Sleater-Kinney, arguably the best all-female rock outfit of the past twenty years and easily one of the post-Kurt US underground's most vital bands. Alongside the likes of Pavement, the Flaming Lips and Built To Spill, S-K offered an occasional late-night radio alternative to the tired diet of stodgy Britpop UK audiences were force-fed during latter half of the 90s.
Joining Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss in their latest venture are Mary Timony, former front-woman of S-K contemporaries and Matador labelmates Helium, and Rebecca Cole from Elephant 6 associates the Minders, and while this marks the first time all four have played on the same record, the members' individual paths have crossed frequently enough that a diagram illustrating the connections could end up looking like a cat's cradle: Brownstein played with Weiss in Sleater-Kinney, Weiss played with Cole in garage covers band the Shadow Mortons, Timony played with Brownstein in The Spells, and so forth. All of which might explain the chemistry on display here; collectively, Wild Flag are a new group (it's worth remembering their first gig was less than a year ago), but they rip through these ten tracks with the effortless swagger of a unit that has been playing together for years.
Broadly speaking, Wild Flag covers familiar territory, but whilst a simplified analysis of the record as a more accessible take on Sleater-Kinney's spiky hard rock wouldn't be far off the mark, it would be wrong to dismiss Timony and Cole as the band's 'other two'. Whether strutting her sassy stuff on lead or offering breathy backing harmonies, Timony's vocal style couldn't be more different to the visceral shriek of Brownstein's former foil Corin Tucker, but it's a contrast that works perfectly; her Helium-honed song-writing skills are essential too, providing many of the album's poppiest hooks and softening the edges of psych-tinged numbers like 'Glass Tambourine'. Dark horse Cole, meanwhile, may well be the band's secret weapon: chunky low-end keys mean the absence of a bassist goes pretty much unnoticed, while her swirling, stabbing organ riffs – most notably the Morse code punch in the face that drives 'Future Crimes' – evoke Nuggets proto-punk as well as New Wave's nervy urgency.
So, whilst Sleater-Kinney fans that have spent the last five years waiting for a reunion have had to compromise somewhat, it's doubtful they'll be complaining, and after Tucker's relatively sedate 2010 solo offering (1,000 Years) it's a relief to find Brownstein and Weiss still kicking out the jams. Although Wild Flag largely lacks the metallic post-hardcore edge that informed much of S-K's output, it does take the classic rock sonics of their last album, 2005's The Woods, and expands on them to stunning effect, with echoes of Led Zep and Deep Purple in the album's warm, heavy sound, and of Hendrix and Pete Townshend in Brownstein's pyrotechnic guitar displays. Weiss's stickswork, too, is as spectacular as always; she's hardly been resting on her laurels recently, playing with Quasi, Bright Eyes and Stephen Malkmus' Jicks, but it's still a real treat to hear Weiss attack her kit, combining jazzy showmanship with the kind of aggression one would expect from a drummer raised on punk's propulsive tempos.
There's no shortage of melodic hooks here – 'Romance', 'Boom' and the Blondie-esque 'Endless Talk' in particular stand out as tunes that could easily find themselves on daytime radio – but the most impressive thing about Wild Flag is the overwhelming feeling that the band are seriously enjoying themselves. As you might expect from such talented, experienced musicians, there's an almost telepathic element to the interplay between the four members, but they balance focus and fun in the way that only a group completely at ease with their own abilities can, be it the locked-groove glide of 'Short Version' or the borderline prog blowout that closes 'Racehorse'. It's apt that the youthful ideal of playing in a band keeps cropping up in the lyrics: these songs are infused with a joyous enthusiasm more befitting of a group twenty years Wild Flag's junior. A teenage dream of a record.