Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a band called Sleater-Kinney. They were a brilliant trio of women who started as a punk-ish band and grew into much more, culminating in a kind of 1970s revival on their final album, The Woods.
Now we have Wild Flag. The expectations for Wild Flag were huge before the band really even existed. Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney! Mary Timony from Helium! Rebecca Cole from The Minders! The last two bands must be known to those with more serious indie cred than I have, because I have no clue who they were. When the eponymously titled album came out a couple months ago, reviewers fell over themselves to praise it to the skies.
It took me a little longer to obtain the album. I'm not exactly underwhelmed. Maybe more like confused. For a start, I think how much you like this album might depend on how much you liked The Woods. For me, that was "not so much." I had always loved the space in earlier Sleater-Kinney albums. The Woods was very full. And for me, it was more about the players showing off their chops than delivering edgy, memorable songs, which they had done so well earlier in their career.
Wild Flag seems to mine the late 1960s more than the 1970s of The Woods. Certainly that's what Timony does. "Glass Tambourine" (totally channelling Cream in the intro), "Electric Band," and "Black Tiles" bring me back to my youth, and not always in a good way. Some of the lyrics are downright embarrassing. Brownstein contributes her share of less-than-stellar lyrics too, like on "Boom" and the six-minute-plus indulgence of "Racehorse."
"Romance" starts the album off with a bang, but it also provides a good illustration of some of the problems. The chorus is absolutely killer, but the verse and the odd extra bits all sound like they belong to a different song. Much of the song sounds like riffs that were strung together, not terribly coherently. Brownstein just doesn't have the vocal power that her former band mate Corin Tucker has, nor does she seem to have much of a knack for melody. The band tries to cover all of this over with some enthusiastic and rather busy playing. There's no question the playing is good! But really, it's not quite the song it attempts to be—until that chorus hits.
The high point of the album for me is "Short Version." That's the song where it feels like everything comes together. I don't have to make an effort to like "Short Version." I just do. "Future Crimes" comes close. "Something Came Over Me" starts promising but doesn't deliver. "Endless Talk" is a cute girl-group kind of song. "Black Tiles" provides a strong closer for the album (not having an iPod and thus not buying from iTunes, I don't know what the bonus 11th track sounds like). But that's really not enough for me to go crazy for this album. Can we have more like "Short Version"?
It's interesting that the band has such a love for late-60s psychedelia. It's not often you hear anyone revive that stuff. But maybe there's a good reason for that. Maybe that was music very much of its time. I love the clip of the comedian on Tool's Aenema album about all those genius players back then—"real fuckin' high on drugs." Maybe Wild Flag need to tune in and turn on to really understand those grinding organ sounds and wailing guitars—and tacky lyrics that we'd rather forget.
The empress isn't naked. She definitely has clothes on, and pretty good ones. But I don't think she's arrayed in quite the finery that so many other reviewers and fans seem to think. I understand people wanting this to be a great album. I just don't think it lives up to the hype. And maybe that was impossible anyway. Hype can be that way.
I fully expect to be much more enthusiastic when I see Wild Flag play live on Saturday. I might not think the album is great, but I can tell the band is very good.