Wild Flag by Wild Flag, Wichita Recordings, 2011
Wild Flag are comprised of members of previous bands you’ve most likely heard of if you’re bothering to read this. Why clog up the introduction with obligatory rock CV’s or family trees? I would hope you’d read that with as much zeal as the warrantee leaflet for your new kettle. Needless to say the previous bands were great and you can hear elements of them all in Wild Flag’s debut. It will be paramount to discuss Sleater Kinney’s lyrical motifs and Carrie Brownstein’s vocal stylings however.
The flag of this all girl four piece is indeed wild, how can it anything but when it stakes the claim to the territory of romantic fate and the role of music in heightening it’s emotional potency? There are eight blistering songs – only two slight duds – really incredible hit rate that for a ten track album.
Opening gambit “Romance” is a stomping sonnett, thrusting rhetorical, joyful declarations to the love object in singular pronouns: “Hey, can you feel it?” Then there’s a clever, creepy power shift from “You’re all that I have,” to an all seeing, singing, dancing collective “we” in the chorus. These predators have “our eyes trained on you” know “what we like” and it’s “Hands down.”
The album is one long masochistic courtship dance. Figures crawl, burn, shake and twitch with desire. The skipping heartbeat is Janet Weiss’s pummelling, thundering drumming. A startling counterpoint of gentle, juicy ‘la’, ‘la’ harmonies, ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ try to sooth away Carrie Brownstein’s hysterical exclamations. She does Patti Smith vowel sounds, but draws them out further, mangling them into uniquely beautiful, urgent, plaintive cries. The yearning anguish is all in the surprising metre, unexpected intonation and stretched assonance of ”aroooound the flouure (floor)” or “arooound the roooom” (Boom).
I’m always happy for things to descend into a dry, technical poetry lecture. Just in case this is not your bag: I could also note how in the track “Boom” there are delightful little squalling guitar sketches tucked away, that emerge and evolve after repeating listening. There are pounding, military beats, woozy, swirling Hammond organ climaxes and stadium echoey riff interludes, that are somehow danceable, on “Something Came Over Me“, for example.
Both Wild Flag and Sleater Kinney do a fantastic line in what I would call metarock; songs about songs, music about music. In Sleater Kinney this conceit was a metaphor for romantic union: “One Beat,”or a beckoning muse: ”Words and Guitar.” Then they had the self-reflexive showbiz numbers: “Combat Rock,” “Entertain” and “Rock ‘n Roll Fun.” In Wild Flag this imagery evolves into a metaphysics of viseral sound worlds: the “Electric Band” is an “electric mind” “blowing in time.” Or there are the corporeal images where: “Sound is the blood” (“Romance”) and the love object physically manifests: “coming through in stereo sound” (“Something Came Over Me”). There’s innocent, playful physicality too; a clean-cut, syrupy warmth, in truly catchy parting couplets like: “Run if you can, here comes the electric band!”
“Glass Tamborine” is the psych-nostalgic variant of their meta-rock symbolism. Oddly, we don’t hear a tamborine on it, just Janet’s pulverising beat. Their extended instrument metaphor evokes fragility and a dark mysticism, an untrustworthy talisman that can be broken “on the scene.” This is no breezily optimistic percussion, like The Lemon Pipers “Green Tamborine”, that “jingle jangle’s” “starts to shine, reflections of the music that is mine.”
Their most impressive command of sound nostalgia is Wild Flag’s deployment of guitar. The album is punctuated by a paradoxically disciplined use of ‘fried’ psychedelic flourishes. Rather than the usual bloated, lengthy cock rock signatures, they do a controlled squall version. The wig outs are melodic, miniature motifs. It’s reined in, kept in fun, poppy order by Janet’s thunderous time keeping.
“Endless Talk” is another reminder of Wild Flag’s bold lyrical register. They meld a classic romanticism with a Hey! Yeah! hectoring Ramones-ism. The backing vocals act as the taunting wind up here. We speed up, then slow down, in keeping with the power play of the loose-tongued, off hand spite of a lover’s tiff. This would seriously p*** you off on the dance floor. But thinking on it, the tempo makes a crafty accidental symbol for the disorientating, passive aggressive dance of a lover’s quarrel.
“Future Crimes” sticks right out as the pulsating heart of the collection. This lusty fireball of a track, threatens to go “front to back”, promising the crime of producing a physical and spiritual limbo. Seductive, intimidating guitar lines soundtrack a libidinous wreckage of the blood and nerves. The singer vows to expose the love object if they are defeated, “crime” and “scream” are rhymed, you wouldn’t mess with them.
I’ll quickly brush over the two duds. “Short Version’s” Sylvia Plath-y, Goth-y imagery never quite comes to life. The lines feel squeezed into the tune here, working at odds with it. The Devil/Witchey stuff is also too spelt out. There is however a cracking line, exhorting us to: “stop staring with your camera eye” “if you want to live”. I’m sure it wasn’t meant to, but this puts me in mind of those twerps littering contemporary gigs, with phones suspended above the crowd. Presumably they prefer acquiring a shoddy record of something/an erstaz version to experiencing the first hand reality. Overall on “Short Version”, you don’t notice the music, so something’s gone wrong.
Then there’s the laboured “Racehorse”‘ song, a metaphor for the gamble of love. This fails at the starting post, breaking the fairly reliable rule of show don’t tell for strong storytelling. Insert various cliched betting puns here: I’m not backing this one/it’s an odds-on bet, the winnings are less than your stake in this track. This is the one album moment where the rock riffage is not reined in, doesn’t gallop off in an edgy Patti Smith “Horses” direction, just sustains a lame plod.
There’s a narrative neatness to “Black Tiles” as a parting shot. It pleads us to grab our chances in the face of mortality. It’s a final beg for us to submit to a mysterious “it” we mustn’t fight: “For all we know we’re just here for the length of this song.” It’s the most bouncy of their tracks. The “ooooo’s” chime along to the perky guitar snippets. “Black Tiles” uses a lyrical tic from Sleater Kinney, in the recurring commands to “look away” “Don’t look at me”. There is some Freudian digging to do here, but I don’t want my review to fall prey to the self-reflexive parting couplet: “For the length of the song. I never know when it’s done When it’s gone.”