More times than not, when an artist or band uses the phrase “indefinite hiatus”, it’s a police way of saying that they’re breaking up. Sometimes it really is just a temporary break from making music with the same people, as bands like Broken Social Scene and TV on the Radio have proven more recently. Whether they just want a couple years to decompress or pursue solo/side projects away from the main band, a hiatus is a way to explore those options. For Sleater-Kinney, their indefinite hiatus certainly seemed like it would be brief. Corin Tucker wanted to take some time and really focus on being a new mother, while Carrie Brownstein took to blogging for NPR and doing occasional comedy sketches with her friend and SNL player Fred Armisen. Janet Weiss, not content to sit around on the sidelines, joined up with Stephen Malkmus as part of the Jicks in a move that seemed almost like an afterthought. To put it more bluntly, none of the S-K trio were doing anything they couldn’t give up at a moment’s notice to bring the band back together. In the last year or so though, there’s been something of a sea change. Brownstein got more heavily into acting, both starring in a movie with The Shins/Broken Bells’ James Mercer and taking her team-up with Armisen to a new level via the IFC series “Portlandia”. Meanwhile Tucker apparently spent just enough time raising a family that the music itch struck her again, so instead of going for the reunion, she formed The Corin TUcker Band and crafted a record of alt-country songs. It’s certainly a long way from the brash and fiery punk rock that Sleater-Kinney brought to the table. And with Stephen Malkmus getting Pavement back together for a year of touring and shows, Weiss was seemingly in the wind for that period of time. Well, that small gap quickly vanished when about a year ago Brownstein took to her “Monitor Mix” NPR blog to announce the existence of Wild Flag, a new band with a lineup that included Weiss on drums, along with The Minders’ Rebecca Cole on keyboards and Helium’s Mary Timony on guitar/vocals. It’s now been a year since their formation, and having played a number of shows in that time, the band is now celebrating the release of their self-titled debut album.
It’s easy to pick apart Wild Flag based upon the sum of its parts. That’s really the case with any band that might otherwise be considered a supergroup. Part of you wants to question if this new band lives up to the legacy of the talent behind it. What’s fascinating about Wild Flag is that their debut record appears to be most concerned with the legacy that other groups have left behind. So many bands new and old continue to prime the pump by exploiting a previously established sound from a previous decade by trying to put a fresh spin on it. The Killers had 80s synth pop when they first arrived and created a new wave of new wavers. Bands like Japandroids and Yuck are some of the more forceful acts to bring back some serious 90s nostalgia in the last couple years. Innovative and forward-thinking groups are quickly vanishing as nostalgia grabs hold and comes in waves. Are there any original ideas left out there? That’s a question for another day, because Wild Flag is the antithesis of that. Unlike so many of these bands that make music or become popular simply because a certain type of music is the current flavor of the month, Wild Flag plays it smarter on their debut, something you’d hope would be the case given that all the members are music veterans. Sure, you can hear flashes of that in-your-face punk rock that Sleater-Kinney was best known for on a track like “Boom”, which in this particular case also comes infused with a healthy dose of keyboard. You can almost hear Brownstein sneering behind the microphone at times, which certainly invigorates a couple tracks, particularly the crunchy and intense “Racehorse”. What’s missing as a counterpoint to that is the presence of a wailing, overly dramatic Corin Tucker belting something out to the rafters. Mary Timony’s approach is far more relaxed classic rock than it is punk rock, and it’s what really pushes some genre shifts on the record. With Brownstein and Timony essentially switching off lead vocal duties from track to track, pinning Wild Flag in a particular corner becomes nearly impossible. The energetic and fun post-punk of opening track “Romance” gets quickly tempered by the much more relaxed 60s girl group stylings of Timony’s “Something Came Over Me” before Brownstein exits out the other end with the hard-hitting punk of “Boom”. Technically it’s a miscalculation to disrupt the pace of the record so early on like that, but all three tracks are solid in their own right so that makes it easier to take.
Timony pushes a psychedelic angle into “Glass Tambourine” while also simultaneously channeling a bit of The Breeders vocally, and it winds up being her best contribution on the record. Any time Wild Flag takes some extra time to extend a track beyond 4 minutes it turns into a rewarding experiment in which fascinating musical avenues are explored and all the players prove their worth instrumentally. Janet Weiss in particular stands out with her intense drumming skills, but then again rare is the occasion when Weiss’ talent doesn’t shine as bright or brighter than her peers. She remains one of the best percussion weapons making music today. Of course Rebecca Cole is no slouch either, even if her contributions via keyboard and backing vocals are likely to be the ones that attract the least amount of attention. She’s essential to the Cars-esque new wave vibe of “Endless Talk” and provides a sharp anchor to Timony’s eccentricities on “Electric Band”. If you want to hear the band operating at full power, in which the foursome work best as a cohesive unit but are each given an individual chance to shine, you can’t miss with “Racehorse”. It uses every second of 6.5+ minutes to exploit pure guitar shredding, keyboard jamming, drum fills that overflow, and a vocal performance so visceral that impressive only begins to describe it. For those fleeting moments, you forget entirely the names and the history of the people within this band and just surrender to raw talent. In an ideal world, Wild Flag would give you that same feeling on every song.
The best thing about both Wild Flag the band and “Wild Flag” the album is how purely emotional everything is. The goal is ultimately lack of control – the ability to simply let yourself loose and have some fun. Here is a band that thrives on impulse rather than careful plotting, allowing the wind to dictate the sonic direction they’ll head next with little care if it’s prudent to do so. There’s nothing on the album that’s outright bad, but there are a couple small moments that seem just a touch out of place compared to everything else. Those are the times when the band doesn’t fully gel, primarily derived from trying to bring the two distinct sensibilities of Brownstein and Timony into one singular vision. Assuming this is more than just a one-off effort, those sorts of issues should resolve themselves the more time they spend together as a band. So long as they don’t lose that fresh sense of excitement and wonder, Wild Flag could easily become the sort of band that makes you forget about where they came from and instead hope they continue to show progress and brilliance for years to come.