Album review: Wild Flag, ‘Wild Flag’ (Merge)

September 8, 2011

Wild Flag, with Mary Timony third from left.

"Dark, mysterious, sexy, and thoroughly idiosyncratic, Mary Timony is something of a cipher even to dedicated fans," I wrote in a 2003 profile of the D.C.-bred, formerly Boston-based indie-rock veteran. "This leads to a certain amount of speculation about her on the Web: She’s a pagan, she’s a witch, she’s a progressive-rocker, she’s a fantasy/Tolkien/renaissance faire devotee in indie-rocker’s clothing. She just chuckles and says that none of that is true."

“I think that people make those assumptions a lot—that I’m a person who must be into fantasy,” Timony told me back then. “I think it’s because when I’m writing lyrics, I use a lot of metaphors, and they’re just images to represent something that’s very real. But I’m never writing about an unreal situation. Like, I may write something about a peacock, but usually that peacock represents a boyfriend or something to me. But it’s funny, because I focus so little on the lyrics. Really my main interest is the music and coming up with the melodies and playing the instruments and stuff.”

This is worth recalling now on the occasion of the first full-length release from the much-buzzed supergroup Wild Flag. Because while many, no doubt, will focus on and cheer the return of Sleater-Kinney’s old guitarist-vocalist Carrie Brownstein and drummer-vocalist Janet Weiss, Timony is the secret weapon and driving force behind the new band, which is completed by keyboardist Rebecca Cole, formerly of the Minders. There’s no denying that Sleater-Kinney had plenty of attitude and energy; for my money, what it lacked was memorable songwriting. And from her earliest days with Autoclave, through her time with Helium and countless side projects, into her later-day solo career, Timony has always delivered the melodic goods, along with the aforementioned welcome dose of weirdness.

The hooks and the left-of-center lyrical perspective both are in ample evidence on the sweetly succinct set of 10 exquisite songs comprising Wild Flag. Amplifying the vibe of the debut single “Glass Tambourine,” there’s a classic psychedelic Britpop/American garage rock vibe to songs such as “Romance,” “Boom,” and “Electric Band”—think of the songs on Lenny Kaye’s original Nuggets compilation—but it’s filtered through a post-punk/art-rock sensibility a la Wire or the Buzzcocks, which tempers even the potential excess of the jammed-out, 6:42 “Racehorse,” the climax of the disc and a new millennial response to Patti Smith’s timeless "Horses."

The song is a good illustration of how the band takes familiar ingredients, combines them in unexpected ways, and comes up with something utterly fresh and mind-blowing. Over a propulsive drum beat, two guitar lines circle each other warily as a Rick Wakeman-on-speed keyboards burble in the background. “Pony up, pony up/And ride, and ride,” one of the girls seductively coos in the mid-song breakdown. (I’m betting it’s Timony, but it could also be Brownstein; both have similarly husky, gravelly tones to their vocals.) Then the mood suddenly turns threatening and angry—“You’d better ride!”—before finally erupting in a triumphant, melodic chorus of “We’re in the money, we’re in the money!”

Indeed they are, or should be soon, since Wild Flag’s introductory bow instantly shoots to the top of the list not only of the year’s strongest albums, but of the strongest and most promising debuts in recent memory.

On the four-star scale: 4 STARS

Wild Flag "Romance"

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