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The concept of a "supergroup"— wherein performers with cool and/or exciting pedigrees find themselves in something resembling a "band" — dies hard. Imagine your favorite musicians playing together! Frequently, expectations exceed results — a collection of individuals does not necessarily a band make, often because of diverging musical directions and egos (and drugs and alcohol, too). For example, Blind Faith (Clapton, Winwood, etc.): one album, one tour, implosion. Or Gang War, featuring Wayne Kramer (The MC5) and Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls, Heartbreakers): barely got off the ground. Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band: nostalgia. And so it goes.
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Do not assign Wild Flag with that tag and the baggage that goes with it. Wild Flag consists of four simpatico individuals who have known each other for over a decade: Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, also known as two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney; Rebecca Cole, of the Portland-based Minders; and Mary Timony, leader of her own band, and member of Helium and Autoclave. Their assorted configurations have toured together, shared stages, and performed together — Weiss and Cole in the 1960s garage-rock covers combo the Shadow Mortons (named for the legendary producer of both archetypical 1960s tough-girl group the Shangri-Las and the proto-punk N.Y. Dolls); Brownstein and Timony in the Spells. (Weiss also played in Quasi, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks.) Wild Flag is not a "concept," nor is it a "side project" — it is, simply, a band. Asked if she felt there were undue expectations on the project because of its members' lineage, Weiss replied with a hint of self-deprecating humor, "Not really, but I have high expectations [of] the band! I hope that people with listen with an open mind and an open heart."
As anyone who's ever been in a band knows, nothing is that simple. But it doesn't have to be excessively complicated, either. "Chemistry cannot be manufactured or forced, so Wild Flag was not a sure thing, it was a 'maybe,' a possibility," says Weiss. "But after a handful of practice sessions, spread out over a period of months, I think we all realized that we could be greater than the sum of our parts ... not four disparate puzzle pieces trying to make sense of the other, but a cohesive and dynamic whole." Was there a conscious effort to not evoke Sleater-Kinney? Weiss again: "There was a desire to avoid covering the ground [that has been] already covered.... We wanted to challenge ourselves, to craft something new, to tread new waters."
Ideally, a band has its own identity, its members a shared purpose, and the self-titled Wild Flag album practically explodes with those qualities. All the players bring something to the table, but Wild Flag is not one of those "Okay, this sounds like so-and-so, and that recalls blah-blah." There are many influences here, but they're integrated into an almost seamless whole. The jabbing-and-weaving opener "Romance" has terse, smoldering psychedelic guitar and assertive, surging vocal harmonies. "Racehorse" is driven by searing, fuzzed-out guitar (evoking the Electric Prunes) and cathartic vocals, plus an almost prog-rock bridge and a Who-like tension-and-release. All this is both nailed down and buoyed by Weiss' drumming, which harnesses the big beat of John Maher (the Buzzcocks' original drummer) and the propulsive accents of Keith Moon. There are plenty of winsome "la-la-la" choruses and taut, unpredictable song structures. There's even a parody (or homage — maybe both) of the Cars in the droll, loping "Endless Talk." While Wild Flag sounds nothing like Wire, it is like Wire. Is it a coincidence? "Wire is a favorite [of ours]. They were an influence [regarding] angular song structures," Weiss says. Like that iconic Brit foursome, Wild Flag plays brainy (but not ponderous) music that rocks, with passionate singing and a bittersweet, subversive approach to pretty melodies. ("Electric Band" has a mysterious yet jaunty hot-fun-in-the-summertime feel.)
But how does Weiss personally feel about the "supergroup" tag that the media have bestowed upon Wild Flag? "I'll take it," she says, bemused, "as long as [listeners] come to it as something new."
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