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Music reviews & news: Wild Flag, Madina Lake, Blondie

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wildflagcd.jpgWe could talk about this band's pedigree for some time, but that's only a sliver of the story. Yes, Wild Flag brings together two-thirds of the celebrated alt-rock trio Sleater-Kinney, singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss (also still half of the long-running indie-pop duo Quasi), and adds ex-Helium guitarist Mary Timony and keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders). It's a family tree grown from modern rock hardwood, and I suppose we have to call it a supergroup despite that word's frequently horrible connotations.

Wild Flag, however, is not a bunch of seasoned pros slapping themselves on the back. It's a quartet that, at least for 10 splendid new songs, revives rock and roll with a joy not heard in years. The band's self-titled debut, "Wild Flag" (Merge) [4 stars], out today, is a swaggering rock record -- rock, not rawk. No self-righteous anthems here. It swings and jives and shimmies and shakes and occasionally gets wonderfully weird. It throws a great party. It's inspires Cheshire, just-ate-the-canary grins from start to finish, and it'll be ranked among the year's best albums, for sure.

When I spoke with Weiss earlier in the year, she marveled at the band's twin-guitar attack: "I've never seen two women playing guitar solos at the same time. I've never seen that! Have you?" Brownstein (also a sketch comedian now in cable's "Portlandia") and Timony dance and chant with their instruments, the latter often unfurling suitably wild licks in most of these songs, wielding tight control and unleashing reckless abandon and keeping us constantly on edge about which is going to happen in any given moment. Songs like the slightly trippy, Fairport Convention-on-cocaine "Glass Tambourine" and the deconstructed Tom Verlaine architecture of "Short Version" both open with firm, confident handshakes and then devolve into biting, scratching sonic fits with both guitars circling and skewering each other's sounds.

But this isn't a women-in-rock story, either. It's just a potent reminder from four skilled musicians that rock can be forceful, free and fun -- "Let the good times ... toll!" they shout in "Something Came Over Me." Hand claps, hard riffs and a few old-timey "shoop-shoops" and Go-Go's "ooh-oohs" follow, with bright-eyed invitations to "come on and join our electric band" and celebrations of getting outside your head (and your earbuds): "We dance till we're dying / We dance to free ourselves from the room / We love the sound / The sound is what found us / Sound is the blood between me and you." Get past the lineage, get past the skirts, get past the hype, they insist, and just "listen to the music" ("Glass Tambourine").

In concert: Wild Flag has been amazing live thus far. They're back Oct. 8-9 at the Empty Bottle.

The local Lake
Madina Lake singer Matthew Leone was hospitalized last year after being beaten while trying to intervene in a domestic violence incident. But now the Chicago band's story is back to the music. Madina Lake's new album, "World War III," was released this week and features a song, "Imagineer," produced and written by the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, who also played a benefit show last summer to help with Leone's medical costs. The band celebrates the release this weekend at Metro.

'80s babies
Blondie has now been reunited twice as long as their original groundbreaking run in ye olde new wave. Like Echo & the Bunnymen, in that respect, they continue making records that are high quality and fairly honest even if they lack the sharp bite of the glory days. The basic character of the band is intact on the new "Panic of Girls" (EMI) [2 stars], which also mans that some things work (the peppy "What I Heard," the celebratory "Mother") and some don't (the bilingual bore of "Wipe Off My Sweat," the three reggae songs). Guests include Cars guitarist Elliot Easton on "Love Doesn't Frighten Me at All" and others (which is welcome, because Blondie axman Chris Stein continues to pull his punches here) and Beirut leader Zach Condon, adding trumpet to Blondie's cover of his band's "Sunday Smile."

In other '80s comebacks:

-- I hesitate to admit how deeply Grace Jones' new U.S. release, "Hurricane" (PIAS) [2 and a half stars] has gotten under my skin. It's a three-year-old record just now getting a proper U.S. release, and it's the first new material from this vampiric singer-actress since 1989. But despite the trademark mugging on the cover, the usual Jones persona -- part approachable dominatrix, part evil fashion model -- is largely gone (the Vincent Price recitatives return a couple of times, on the one harsh groove "Corporate Criminal" and the shadowy reggae of "Love You to Life") in favor of a kinder, gentler but no less alluring vamp. She gets downright tender and trembling on "I'm Crying (Mother's Tears)," a rhythmic reflection in which Jones sounds less declarative and more like she's convincing herself as she sings, and sings well in her feminine baritone, "I'm strong enough / I'm tough enough." This new release includes a second disc: the entire album remixed into springy dub versions.

-- Would you believe the Human League is back? It's not a triumphant return, as evidenced by this disappointing, simplistic ode to the midnight oil -- a single from their new album "Credo" ...

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on September 13, 2011 12:00 PM.

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