When the legendary Portland-based trio Sleater-Kinney announced their indefinite hiatus in 2006 to widespread dismay, there was no official explanation as to why. One had to suspect, however, that it wasn’t because guitarist Carrie Brownstein, frontwoman Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss felt burned out, but rather for deeper, more complex reasons. In 2010, the tantalizing news surfaced that Janet and Carrie were re-grouping as Wild Flag with Helium’s Mary Timony on guitar and vocals and The Minders’ Rebecca Cole on keyboards. For months, there were no recordings, making live videos a valuable commodity. When they began to surface, they proved that not only did that old authentic urgency remain, it was the crux of the new band.
The group’s debut is underpinned by a do-or-die urgency and an existentialist drive which sets its scene in the most feral of arenas: the rock club. Opener “Romance” is all about the transcendence of song and movement, how “we dance to free ourselves from the room,” how “we’ve got an eye, an eye for what’s romance/ we’ve got our eyes, our eyes trained on you” – a sly nod to their heritage, but one that’s tempting you into their future, too. It’s an irresistible allure – Cole’s keyboards are squelchy and coy, and Brownstein and Timony zoom from nose to tail of their frets. It sounds immediately classic, already iconic, but fresh as well, and it makes you realise how long it’s been since there’s been a truly vital guitar band. Chris Woodhouse’s production is barely there, giving the record a carnal, live feel; even when the four indulge in one of their more psychedelic wig-outs, every element feels essential. The end of “Glass Tambourine” finds them spiralling off in all different directions: Weiss the spitting motor, Cole a Krautrock dream, and Brownstein and Timony marveling at the cosmos.
The penultimate track, the lurching, squawking “Racehorse,” is a distillation of the fundamentals that Wild Flag set down in the face of dilly-dallying dilettantes and non-believers: “Where are you going?/ What do you own?/ What are you selling?/ Who do you know?” they goad amid spirited bursts of winding guitar and Cole audibly battering the keys. It’s the final challenge in Wild Flag’s wondrous initiation ritual, one that urges you to set aside baggage and bullshit for the crux of Brownstein’s flaming, gravel-voiced home slamdown: “What you don’t know is me,” she roars with a mixture of fury and pride. The underlying message is not one of defeat, but a reaffirmation of the need for identity and principles if you’re to be better than average, acknowledging musicians and humans’ propensity for transformation. When it comes to Wild Flag, theirs is an incarnation that we want to hang on to for as long as they’ll let us. Their debut is incendiary, an epiphany-inducing thing.