The supergroup Wild Flag gets dynamic, not didactic | Music Essay | Indy Week

Music » Music Essay

The supergroup Wild Flag gets dynamic, not didactic



Most talk about Wild Flag begins with the acknowledgement that the new band is a supergroup of familiar faces: singer and guitarist Carrie Brownstein, singer and guitarist Mary Timony, organist Rebecca Cole and drummer Janet Weiss. An inevitable caveat follows: This actually isn't the first time Brownstein and Timony have worked together.

Back in 1999, these two seemingly kindred spirits briefly joined forces as The Spells. At that point, indie rock didn't sport the wealth of notable, dynamic female stars it claims right now—no St. Vincent, Zola Jesus, Jenny Lewis, tUnE-yArDs, Little Scream or even Lana Del Ray. Given the general what-the-hell nature of indie rock at that point, Brownstein and Timony's pairing only seemed natural. But the potentially fruitful collaboration resulted only in one eminently forgettable eight-minute EP. Their distinct styles, turns out, were not very compatible.

At that point, Timony's playing utilized both medieval modalities and Hawaiian slack-key techniques, imparting a peculiar kind of mass and gait. Imagine watching a graceful ballroom dancer cross the floor with weights strapped to her ankles. Meanwhile, Brownstein still plays guitar with a frenetic passion matched only by her onstage persona, even when she slows to navigate trickier passages. As The Spells, these two collided like oil and water, as if they had each done their own thing and decided to slap a band name on the cover.

These stylistic contrasts mirrored where the two guitarists were in their respective careers. In 1999, Mary Timony was only a year removed from the breakup of Helium, a Matador Records trio maybe most notable for getting their videos on Beavis and Butthead. (Timony was a sort of paramour for the animated duo.) Though the group was only around for a couple of albums and a handful of EPs, Helium's sound shifted drastically and often. When MTV nabbed the video for "XXX," Helium was making off-kilter guitar pop that sounded like The Breeders fronted by Richard Kern model Lung Leg. The music seethed and brawled, with Timony offering dangerous come-ons and threats with laconic disdain.

By 1997's The Magic City, however, the medieval modalities of Timony's playing had metastasized into the rest of the music; fairy-tale creatures, pan pipes and harpsichord runs spread through the tunes. Though the words had changed, the themes Timony explored—what it means to be a woman, and a sexual being, in a world that often isn't friendly to such things—were still present. After Helium split, Timony continued with a batch of solo and band records that tried to reconcile these two modes of expression.

For Brownstein, 1999 wasn't the start of a new era. Rather, her not-so-little trio, Sleater-Kinney, had just released their fourth album, The Hot Rock, and were continuing their gradual transformation from underground sensation into club-packing critical fave. Sleater-Kinney's interests in exploring sexual identity and womanhood are well documented—their group was formed with their riot grrrl bona fides well established. If gender-bending songs like "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" didn't do the trick, the group was also fronted by two openly bisexual women. Their rock was direct, aggressive and often ecstatic.

After the sidetrack of The Spells, Sleater-Kinney only grew larger, calling it quits after 2005's The Woods—really, while on top of their world. When the group broke up, Brownstein gave music a rest. In the last five years, she's made a name for herself as both a music journalist (she wrote a blog for NPR and has a book due out from HarperCollins) and as a comedic actress (her IFC sketch-comedy show with Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen, Portlandia, was recently renewed for a second season).

The news of Wild Flag's formation not only meant that some of indie rock's most notable musicians were joining forces but also that indie rock's most notable female voices were returning, re-entering a world they helped create. Stating that the aforementioned St. Vincents of the world wouldn't exist without the byways blazed by Timony and Brownstein is barely an exaggeration.

That said, maybe the most surprising aspect of the group's self-titled debut is the near-absence of any kind of girl talk. When Brownstein leads here, the songs are mostly about rocking out and having a good time. Timony's songs aren't quite as unabashed, but they go with that general flow. In a world where publications still pay for pointless "girls that rock" features, and websites gin up their Google Metrics with an unending array of listicles and galleys ranking the hottest female musicians, one would think that the time would be perfect for a group like Wild Flag to put its foot down—stake a claim, get riotous, argue with that trend. But they've already done that. Here, they opt for a different path: They're letting their music do the talking for them.

There are some Brownstein-fronted tracks that mimic the harried pace of Sleater-Kinney; most of the Timony-led tracks recall the purposeful stomp of her more raucous Helium work. But then there's "Racehorse," which features Brownstein offering her own homage to Fugazi's "Merchandise" ("Where are you going?/ What do you own?") as the group builds to a dramatic crescendo. And on "Glass Tambourine," Wild Flag makes like a psychedelic garage band, with Cole even having her own little "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" moment. For most of the album, however, the Brownstein side stays Brownstein and the Timony side stays Timony; everyone plays nice with each other, but there's no sense that the group's really finding itself as, well, a group.

That's what makes the last track, "Black Tiles," so important and invigorating. Not only do Timony and Brownstein share vocal duties, but their musical minds finally meet, too. Timony's knotty heaviness melds perfectly with Brownstein's brawny swagger. It's a union that's as serendipitous as it is welcome, endemic more of a desire to create music together than any particular need to say something important. And it's a union, in a very literal sense, that has been a long time coming.

Add a comment