Those lucky enough to catch one of Wild Flag‘s half dozen or so sets at SXSW earlier this year bore witness to something truly special. The band – comprising Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, Helium’s Mary Timony and The Minders’ Rebecca Cole – arrived as a forceful and taut unit, powering through their songs with the skill only four veterans can bring, but a youthful energy that likewise ran higher than that of most of the rookies debuting at the fest that week. Brownstein indulged in her characteristic Pete Townsend-style windmills, while Mary Timony crashed to the ground at one point, without missing a single note. To see Wild Flag was to witness a group of musicians who are exceptionally good at what they do, and seemed to be having a great time doing it.
Wild Flag’s infectious energy and tight synergy translate well on record, their self-titled debut on Merge Records a fiery document of their mesmerizing melodic sensibilities and punk rock grit. There’s definitely more than a trace of Sleater-Kinney’s cathartic, visceral quality to Wild Flag’s sound, as well as a touch of Helium’s scruffy, immediate indie pop. But Wild Flag is not by any means a sequel to any of its members’ former bands. As aggressive as the band gets at times, as on the appropriately titled “Boom,” Wild Flag pull some extra influence from psychedelic pop, which in turn results in a more immediate, albeit slightly weirder sound that takes them to accessibly exploratory places.
Debuted a few months before the album, leadoff track and new single “Romance” encapsulates the band’s strengths splendidly, kicking off with a scratchy, Deerhoof-style riff before Brownstein breaks in with her powerful yelp. But what begins as a good song becomes a great one at the chorus, in which the other three members join in for a transcendent harmony of “We sing till we’re crying/ we sing to free ourselves from the room.” It’s the kind of song that sounds like something you may have known and loved for decades, but somehow, miraculously, didn’t exist until now. There’s a similar, if more abrasive sound to “Future Crimes,” which appeared on a seven-inch earlier this year. Cole’s distorted organ riff drives its instrumental refrain, with the rest of the band seemingly playing faster and faster with each measure. Meanwhile, that song’s b-side, “Glass Tambourine,” shows up in slightly different fashion, its brash, swirling riffs and effects laden freakouts revealing the band’s most explicitly psychedelic tendencies.
There isn’t a specific leader in the band, though Brownstein and Timony share about equal time as lead vocalist. Brownstein’s more manic, affected singing style is primarily reserved for punk rockers like “Future Crimes,” “Boom” and “Short Version,” which is one of the most dazzling showcases for the band’s taut instrumental synergy. Yet Timony, the more restrained of the two, helms some of the album’s prettier tracks. On the outstanding “Something Came Over Me,” she invokes a kind of endearing desperation, pleading “I want you here… now,” over one of the record’s strongest melodies. And she closes out the record with alternating singing and narration on “Black Tiles,” while Brownstein emerges during the song’s trippy choral excursion.
As great as Wild Flag’s live performances are, the band has succeeded at capturing the same thrills and intensity on tape. Their debut is a strong balance of unforgettable melodies and raw punk rock power, executed with the kind of effortless command that only musicians with résumés such as their own can. And in a year that’s already contributed Lou Reed’s collaboration with Metallica and whatever you want to call Jack White’s Insane Clown Posse single, Wild Flag has proven to be a supergroup well worth listening to.
Stream: Wild Flag – “Romance”