Record Related #2: Wild Flag, Wild Flag, Wild Flag

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Wild Flag, S/T (Merge) / live at The Bowery Ballroom, NYC, 10/18/11

Eleanor Friedberger, best known as half of The Fiery Furnaces, sings the ultra-catchy, ’70s-damaged “My Mistakes.” The song is affecting not because Friedberger sings it like Patti Smith, but because the verse and chorus have quality hooks, or hook-like recursive—OK, groovy—structures. As she rolls into one of those choruses, Wild Flag’s Carrie Brownstein is visible backstage-right, framed in a lit doorway, clapping her hands on rhythm and contributing a few scribbles of air guitar. Though Friedberger’s vocal mannerisms—precise, heady enunciation swelling into vocal rushes—are smoothed out in this number, her affinity with Wild Flag’s two primary singers, Brownstein and Mary Timony, is apparent. All three ride the line between affect and affectation. Timony’s trademark sardonic frills magically catalyze her performances while teasing the rockist listener; Brownstein takes a jokey, stilted British inflection far enough through fakery to reach the real as she does moral calculus on a righteous meltdown (“Future Crimes”: If you’re gonna be a restless soul / Then you’re gonna be so, so tired / If you’re gonna give up on the fight / Then I’m gonna call YOU a liar!); Friedberger winds herself uptight, then unravels to pounding pulses, swinging. As Courtney Love once sang, I fake it so real I am beyond fake.

On the house system, Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and Richard Hell’s “Time” precede Wild Flag’s appearance onstage—a tall order, and just about right for the band’s emotional matrix. Set along and against Brownstein’s demands, Wild Flag concludes its debut LP with a rousing plea to remember time, or at least notice when it’s up. Rounding out side two, the conditional condemnation of “Future Crimes” augurs “Racehorse,” in which Brownstein growls YOU BET WRONG. But the closing track, “Black Tiles,” sounds more like a group effort at reconciliation, or a simultaneous recapitulation of the band’s call to (redoubled) action and a capitulation to the triumph of time: the end of the last song drawn into the song, which the band can only hope will spin on after it slows down.

The audience takes the album as a promise, and the band delivers. The uncertainty that shivers through Timony’s and Brownstein’s voices at moments on the album (most affecting on “Something Came Over Me”), and their attempts to model and master that waver (Don’t break it, Timony forces through a whisper on “Glass Tambourine”) are practice for the alchemical instability of performance. But as prepared as they are, their power risks being formalized. Sleater-Kinney alum, former NPR columnist, and Portlandia cast member Brownstein is a polished performer and a first-class rock posturist, windmilling her guitar, threatening the mic, playing hood ornament to the bass drum. Erstwhile Helium frontwoman Timony can bend strings over her head, eyes closed, and summon the ancient sub-energies of slack at will. Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, The Jicks) is in total command of her kit, and her vocal flourishes, twinned with Rebecca Cole (also of The Minders, operating keyboards of analog warmth), are the well-tuned irresistible force that attends the songs. Wild Flag makes its own proposition untenable: The album’s mid-career waver of confidence becomes a veteran weave. It’s a setup, even if it wasn’t planned.

So the exaggerated vectors of uncertainty—Are you my friend? If I fall once will I fall twice, out of control?—surrender to Timony’s immanent swagger-cum-falsetto: All right, say my name / Say it again and I’ll make it rain in your mind. The putting-it-on vs. making-it-happen dynamic is ever at play, but these are all musicians who’ve made it and faked it and understand that rock is an emotional con, that everyone knows the words but still acts surprised. The relationship metaphors double signify the lover and the crowd, and that’s what makes the songs go over; the love of playing is what keeps the songs from going over the top. I hope I know when it’s done / When it’s gone gives way to I never know. And over it all is Timony’s looping spell: There is no end, no beginning. It’s as simple as it needs to be, and retains the terror of affect: Say it again and I’ll make it rain is the threat of a promise, the assertion of power in language, in song, in practice, and in performance.

For all this, and for the dramatic black lullaby chanted by Weiss and Cole, the concert is not a ritual: There is an improvisational passage in “Glass Tambourine,” an expanse of black space that breaks the shell of the album. Humility, uncertainty, the catch in the voice, the formal waver: These audible qualities, fully dramatized, make it real and now, an assertion of what Wild Flag hints, something related to and beyond what came before.

The encore reminds us we’re in NYC, on earth, if not here today. Television’s “See No Evil” grows out of the dark garden of the late part of the first set (and vice versa), and thrills with the band chiming EVILLLLLL. And then, what else, Patti Smith’s “Ask the Angels.” Brownstein barks WILD WILD WILD as she bows over the mic, and the band wave(r)s along.


Jeff T. Johnson’s music and culture essays have appeared in Coldfront, Fanzine, The New Yinzer, and Kitchen Sink, among other publications. His poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in 1913 a journal of forms, Boston Review, Slope, and Forklift, Ohio. He lives in Brooklyn, is editor in chief at LIT, and is an editor at Dewclaw. For more information, visit jefftjohnson.wordpress.com. More from this author →