4 stars (out of 4)
So-called “super groups” – prominent musicians from disparate bands who come together to jam -- are often super in theory only, a collection of egos united in the name of commerce. But “Wild Flag” (Merge) is something else entirely. The quartet’s self-titled debut is a combustive mix of indie-rock veterans: two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney (guitarist Carrie Brownstein, drummer Janet Weiss), the guiding force in Helium and countless other projects (Mary Timony) and a key member of the Minders (keyboardist Rebecca Cole). Together they’ve made one of the year’s best albums.
Whereas Sleater-Kinney was celebrated for its intensity and seriousness, constantly questioning the world around them, Wild Flag channels a different kind of passion. The album is about letting go, getting lost in the moment. Dancing, lusting and abandoning control. Feeling supersedes intellect. Or as Wild Flag sings in “Romance”: “Shake, shimmy, shake!”
That impulse is conveyed most forcefully in the music. The sturdily constructed songs brim with backing harmonies that evoke the girl groups of the ‘60s (“Something Came Over Me”) or the new-wave kicks of the Cars (“Endless Talk”). Yet the melodies never feel particularly stable or static, as the band gleefully pulls them apart and whips them around the dancefloor. The guitars of Brownstein and Timony tangle, break apart and sometimes – as in extended tracks such as “Glass Tambourine” and “Racehorse” – zoom off for regions unknown. Cole’s assertive keyboards provide ballast, while Weiss’ drums – titanic and yet focused – often play fills and rolls so decisive they function like hooks or guitar riffs. Whether kicking down the door to open “Romance” and “Electric Band” or delivering thundering kick-drum accents on “Black Tiles,” Weiss shapes the songs even as she threatens to stomp them into oblivion. That sense of teetering on the ledge of chaos, of mayhem fighting melody for control, makes “Wild Flag” a debut for the ages.