One of my favourite bands when I was growing up was Sleater-Kinney. The Portland, Oregon, trio wailed and beat their way through a career that spanned from riot-grrl recordings in Australia to hall-of-fame finality six years ago. Mesmerically energised and pointedly feminist, Sleater-Kinney’s music was both catnip and Catherine wheel for me. (Try this song, with bonus video by Miranda July.) If I weren’t so averse to mawkishness I’d suggest a chemically improbable relationship between their music and my blood.
After the band released their 2005 swan song, The Woods, I thought that would be it. Never again would I anticipate a new album quite like I had theirs, despite the fact that the individual band members have kept creating, though in different guises. Powerful, polarising guitarist/vocalist Corin Tucker has formed The Corin Tucker Band; guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein has been telling people to ‘put a bird on it’ on television’s Portlandia and last year put to bed her excellent NPR music blog, Monitor Mix; and drummer Janet Weiss has been playing with high-profile acts including Conor Oberst, and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks.
But all my grown-up equanimity dissipated when I found out that Weiss and Brownstein would be collaborating again in a new band, Wild Flag, whose self-titled debut album was released last month. When I discovered that ex-Helium singer Mary Timony, another adolescent favourite, was also in the band (Rebecca Cole, previously of The Minders, makes four), I scribbled the release date in my diary and barely stopped myself from decorating the reminder in little pink hearts. It was embarrassing.
The album trailer was concise and tantalising, showcasing punchy guitars and girl-group harmonies. I began dreaming in the solid, deep pastels of the album art (designed by Beginners director Mike Mills). I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this excited about music. And when I could finally download the album, my heart raced. I was ready to fall in love again.
To my delight, Wild Flag is excellent. Brownstein slings her voice around like she does her guitar, punctuating direct lyrics with bellows and yelps. Hers is a vocal strut to rival Jagger’s. In early Sleater-Kinney recordings, Brownstein’s vocals were often restrained, a counterpoint to Tucker’s ululations. But in opening track ‘Romance’, she transforms a simple question – ‘Hey, can you feel it?’ – into a gusty demand, hailing every listener who has ever turned the volume up to 11.
Timony’s voice is much the same as it has always been: intimate and edgeless, occasionally disappearing into the mix. Her bent for gently occult lyrics appears here, too, joining a straight-rock invitation – ‘Come on and join our electric band’ – to something that, wonderfully, resembles the script for a lost Zelda game (‘Dance all night or turn to sand’). Timony’s capacity for wise-teen subversion, so appealing to my younger self, is also in evidence here – ‘We’re gonna let the good times toll’.
Most enchanting about Wild Flag is that the experienced individual players cohesively and persuasively knit together. No one wanted to hear an album recorded by Sleater-Kinney minus one, and Timony and Brownstein’s previous musical project, The Spells, seemed to be missing something. They’ve clearly found it in Cole and Weiss, whose backing vocals add a sweet fullness throughout the album. It’s often suggested that Weiss is one of the best living rock drummers, and her dynamism drives and enhances songs that run a punk-to-prog-to-garage gamut.
There’s joy in Wild Flag. Not only in the lyrics, which continually return to the power of music to enhearten and beguile, but also in the riotous mastery the band demonstrates. Both Timony and Weiss have said in interviews that, joining Wild Flag, they ‘wanted a dream band’. It’s what I wanted, too – and, by god, I got it.
Estelle Tang is Online Editor of Kill Your Darlings.