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Wild Flag - Wild Flag

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Artist: Wild Flag

Album: Wild Flag

Label: Merge

Review date: Sep. 14, 2011

People who talk about music have been talking about Wild Flag. The weight of expectation on this record is 3.6x that of the Earth’s gravity. This band’s press release got more coverage, and was received more favorably, than most rock bands will ever know. Carrie Brownstein seems to know this feeling: “I’m a racehorse, yeah I’m a racehorse / You put your money on me,” she sings near the end of Wild Flag’s debut album. Much of their audience wants something back from them. They’ll get it.

Wild Flag has risen to the occasion. This is an exceptional collection of songs from an unimpeachable cross-section of musicians — Brownstein, Mary Timony, Janet Weiss and Rebecca Cole — whose contributions to independent music stretch back over 20 years. There’s past musical connections between the members a decade deep that run through their sound, so there’s not much guesswork here. They write excellent pop songs that lead rather than follow, with an internal tension that keeps the whole record exciting and on edge. Everything fits, everything works, everyone carries their own end.

Rebecca Cole should be singled out for her keyboard work, and I’m doing it first because every other review of this record is probably going to fit her contributions in last. Her instrument serves as a lead while providing enough low-end to cut out the need for a bass guitar. It’s a wonderful idea and she gets such a full tone out of it, not to mention how it gives the arrangements a good needling, the kind that guitar-based rock often needs to keep from going sluggish. She provides the discordant counter-melody in the opening seconds of the album, the synthy swirls at the psychedelic close of “Glass Tambourine,” the jittery calliope hook in “Future Crimes,” the Morse code that underlines the giddy longing and British accent in “Boom” (the best tribute to Kicking Giant ever written). There weren’t many keys in Helium, and hardly any in Sleater-Kinney, so the more I listen to the record, the more attention I find myself paying to what Cole adds to the Wild Flag palette.

Weiss hits the drums SO HARD. Mary Timony knows this and gave her open drum breaks in two of her songs, which I keep going back to over and over. When I saw Wild Flag (at Radio City Music Hall, of all places), I was most excited to see her play, as I hadn’t had the chance before. Brownstein and Timony have to play extra hard just to keep Weiss from drowning out the guitars. She is blessed to play without any obvious influences, and the trashy, deliberate swing she adds to “Electric Band” and “Black Tiles” make you realize how much stronger a band can be with a great drummer.

Timony and Brownstein play with a full deck of pedals and achieve a grittiness that helps to offset the poppiness arranged in these songs. The record gets off to a very nervous start with its first three tracks, but by the time “Glass Tambourine” hits its freak-out portion, they settle for hard, dexterous rock with none of the obvious trappings of the hard rockin’ bands that came before them, and it’s a joy to hear them go for it. The Helium-esque offerings Timony brings to Wild Flag are reborn with a tough exterior. Brownstein covers the rest of the territory, the best example being her fretboard-tapped lead in the second half of “Short Version,” which sounds as if it could have come out of Cole’s keyboard, and vice versa. Wild Flag has the power to turn a stale metal chestnut (or gum chewing boy-rock trope) into a moment of ingenuity. Chris Woodhouse (Mayyors) recorded the instrumentals live, and it’s the most generous, convincing room tone a band could hope to find in a recording.

There are messages in Wild Flag’s music, but there are also challenges to the listener, and to the rest of rock music in general: This band built its own sound out of stock rock ‘n’ roll parts to make one of the best albums of this year.

By Doug Mosurock

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