Being dubbed a supergroup isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, not when what you’re doing in the here and now can’t quite escape the overblown expectations that come with rose-tinted nostalgia. That’s a little of what all-star combo Wild Flag has been up against since it announced its existence over a year ago, though this is one, um, supergroup that has more than a fighting chance to stand on its own merits. The product of Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss joining forces with Helium’s Mary Timony, Wild Flag has a lot going for it, not only because the principals have pretty much always delivered, but also due to the fact that the band isn’t resting on any laurels, gigging regularly and working hard on original material during its short time together. So, even though the quartet, rounded out by the Minders’ Rebecca Cole, could easily get by on reputation and legacy alone, Wild Flag is anything but a vanity act, not settling for the default options of being the closest thing to a Sleater-Kinney redux or a revitalized Helium.
While a storied lineage is one thing, it doesn’t guarantee that there’s the right chemistry between all the parties involved, no matter how illustrious the players are. Sure, a good part of camaraderie is intangible—either you have it or you don’t—but a lot of what goes into a winning formula is also earned and learned over time. Indeed, you could say that the self-titled debut reflects the process of the members getting to know each other in a working relationship, starting out a bit tentatively as they feel out the situation before hitting their stride as a unit unto itself. In effect, Wild Flag begins like a work-in-progress, but develops into a total package with time-lapse speed over the course of the album, as the band figures out how to forge an identity on the fly before you know it.
That said, Wild Flag does deal with some growing pains at the beginning of the album, as Brownstein and Timony take turns in the frontwoman role through the first half of the album. Leadoff number “Romance” makes an auspicious first impression, kicking into gear with Brownstein as bold as ever with her signature slice-and-dice riffs. What’s a pleasant surprise, though, is that she’s obviously taken the time since Sleater-Kinney broke up—which was a lot longer ago than you think—rounding out her game, coming off more assertive and confident as a singer than before with lyrics that work pretty well as a mission statement for Wild Flag before you any more meaning into them (“We love the sound / The sound is what found us / The sound is blood between me and you”).
But Wild Flag loses the head of steam that “Romance” generates when Timony takes the lead on “Something Came Over Me”. While that track is engaging enough in its own right, it’s too early on the album for a change of pace, as Timony’s more drawn-out, contemplative guitar work and easygoing vocals don’t mesh so seamlessly with “Romance” before it and “Boom”, another explosive Brownstein number, after it. So while it’s not like Brownstein’s slash-and-burn punk pyrotechnics and Timony’s indie-prog noodling clash with one another, their distinctive styles can feel a bit disjointed as the two guitarists figure out how to play off each other and settle into a comfortable working arrangement.
That’s not to say that the tracks aren’t strong ones, it’s just that some of the early numbers don’t stand out like they could as the album ping-pongs between the two songwriters. In particular, Timony’s best contribution on the album, the sprawling “Glass Tambourine”, feels somewhat out of place sandwiched between Brownstein’s punk-pop chestnuts. On it, Timony reminds you of what an inventive and resourceful musician she was in Helium, only to one-up her earlier work with a newfound sense of clarity and focus that keeps the extended jam under control. It just gets lost in the shuffle a bit, since Brownstein is working to establish her own artistic perspective at the same time. You could chalk it up to an issue with sequencing, but it feels more like the bandmates are almost too respectful and reverent of each other’s achievements to let a single, coherent vision take hold. Egalitarianism might be a good idea in principle, but Wild Flag can’t quite capture the creative tension that propelled Brownstein’s best work in Sleater-Kinney or the all-encompassing punk-feminist vision Timony possessed when she helmed Helium.
But it’s when Brownstein more or less takes the reins halfway through on Wild Flag that the album begins to gel and the band makes a mark all its own. Brownstein’s guiding hand comes through more powerfully on the middle third of the album, as the tracks—even Timony’s—become more streamlined, like the swaggering “Endless Talk”, which nicely splits the difference between post-punk and new wave, and the to-the-point pop punch of “Short Version”, on which Timony and Brownstein duel with sleek, angular riffs. The best of these short power-packed bash-ups is “Future Crimes”, as Brownstein really comes into her own as a frontwoman because the band works so well and tightly around her energetic, action-packed lead.
Most of all, though, it’s on the epic “Racehorse” that everything comes together, as Brownstein’s manic urgency melds with Timony’s more open-ended experimental side. Indeed, “Racehorse” is when you really stop trying to figure out where Brownstein’s searing post-punk riffage ends and Timony’s neo-classic-rock shredding begins, as one pushes the other with the kind of interplay you hoped for from Wild Flag when you heard of the project. So when Brownstein sneers on the standout track, “You put your money on me,” she makes a pretty good case that betting on Wild Flag is a winning proposition. Even if it comes out of the gate a little slowly, Wild Flag covers any lost ground by the end, even getting ahead of the game when you consider how new to each other the bandmates are, supergroup or no.
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// Notes from the Road
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