Well before the release of Wild Flag’s debut album on September 13th, videos of the band began to surface on youtube.com. Live versions of the songs from the album, certainly, but more telling was their selection of covers. I’ve seen their takes on Patti Smith’s “Ask the Angels,” the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden” and “She's My Best Friend” from the Velvet Underground. What these choices said was that Wild Flag wasn’t going to be limited by any parochial notions from the indie-rock world. Nor were they going to pursue any express political agenda. Instead, Wild Flag get that the most powerful statement they could make as women and musicians was to flat rock out. And that’s what they do on Wild Flag.
After all, what can a poor girl do ‘cept to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band? By the time Sleater-Kinney came to the end of their road in 2006, singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss had already borne the burden of dreams for a generation of young rockers, especially young women. Mary Timony’s career as soloist and the force behind the group Helium was less visible, but no less connected to the preconceptions that animate the alternative-rock world, i.e. a non-star, one-of-us demeanor, aversion to “hooks” (Sleater-K had already broken that one a few times), and indifference to commercialism and wider popularity. Keyboardist Rebecca Cole from the Minders arrived at the rehearsal studio for Wild Flag’s first practices with the least baggage, and her musicianship and spirit is critical to the success of Wild Flag. Her expressly garage-rock keys signal Wild Flag’s connection to a rock ‘n’ roll world that spans “Nuggets” style Farfisa organ sounds, John Cale’s playing with the Velvets and the late Greg Hawkes work with the Cars. She can suggest the howling growl of “Sister Ray” or the pizzicato whimsy of the solo from the Seeds’ “Pushin’ Too Hard” – as she, by God, does expressly on “Future Crimes.”
Brownstein and Timony make a formidable guitar tandem. Timony’s serpentine Fender lines, reminiscent of Tom Verlaine, contrast perfectly with Brownstein’s Gibson snarl.
As vocalists they alternate and harmonize. The songs Brownstein sings are straight up rockers, Patti Smith the clearest and most striking influence. No longer in Corin Tucker's mezzo-shriek shadow, Brownstein lets her alto wail. The tunes Timony delivers are less bloody and direct, more whimsical and leftfield.
Cole’s robotic, Devo-like keys kick “Romance” off. Brownstein sings “hey, hey can you feel it,” immediately setting the tone. In full swing the band sounds like the Marvelettes jamming with Sonic Youth, one chorus emptying into a chanted “shake, shimmy, shake” playground breakdown, the next into a burst of guitars that resembles early Replacements. Brownstein evokes Patti Smith directly on “Boom” with it’s “you take my hand, you’re in command” lyric recalling “Because the Night,” as Cole’s playing is unabashedly new wave. The Cars curious and consistent mark on these songs is evident on “Endless Talk,” which sounds more than a little like “My Best Friend’s Girl.”
Brownstein sounds like the Motels’ Martha Davis on “Short Version;” Timony’s Phillip Glass influenced guitar spiralling against Brownstein’s Townshend-esque power chords. “Get level with the devil ‘cuz you know that he digs your sin” suggests a decidedly carnal brand of female empowerment.
Timony’s “Something Came Over Me” contends “let the good times toll,” allowing that there’s a price to be paid for good times. Her “Glass Tambourine” is a psychedelic tour de force. “Glass Tambourine” blast off with a blues-rock intro straight outta Cream, then evolves into some guitar explorations that call Spirit or Quicksilver Messenger Service (even) to mind. For “Electric Band” Weiss, a marvel throughout (moving from the most compositional playing to totally Moon-ian outbursts) thumps out a rockin’ intro that triggers a verse with chords that could’ve been borrowed from the Troggs, but transition in the chorus to some delightfully twisted mix of the Velvets’ “Sweet Jane” and the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” Breaking each line of the verse with a nice move to falsetto, Timony also leads the band into a taste of vocal stacking ala the Beatles version of “Twist and Shout” during the song’s breakdown/bridge.
Wild Flag’s penultimate track is a loose jam called “Racehorse.” Brownstein again channeling Patti Smith, (and the songs’ near namesake “Horses”) as the band segues into an instrumental section where the guitarists spar and Cole plays a heady mix of Ray Manzarek style piano and “Sister Ray” vintage/John Cale organ styling.
“Black Tiles” brings the album home with Timony’s moment of Zen, as she sings “we can only hope for a light that shines after we’re gone.” On this debut album Wild Flag’s light is shining brightly right now. Catch the light live at Kansas City’s Record Bar on Wednesday, October 5th.