The Flash Girls,
Play Each Morning Wild Queen
(Fabulous Records, 2001)

The album opens with an instrumental piece, a ponderous bass line driving the fiddle along through a tune which falls somewhere between the realms of Celtic and Gypsy music. Percussion adds a tribal flair and the erupting volcano -- the liner notes credit the volcano god Pele for the sound -- adds the perfect touch to complete the track.

This is an atypical recording, to say the least, and it lets everyone within hearing range know the Flash Girls are back.

The Flash Girls are Emma Bull, noted author of books including War for the Oaks and Finder, and "The Fabulous" Lorraine Garland. But they seldom work alone, drawing on the diverse gifts of many -- Adam Stemple (Boiled in Lead, The Tim Malloys), Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, American Gods), the aforementioned god Pele and even noted poet/critic Dorothy Parker, among others -- to create a quirky, crazy, sensational album on which Lorraine provides vocals and violin, and Emma sings and plays guitar, washboard and spoons.

The opening track, "Driving With Noel," is a Lorraine original, and it's her fiddle which takes the spotlight. It's a wonderful, lush tune, but don't think it sets the tone for the rest of the CD. Diversity is the watchword when dealing with these formidable ladies.

Songs come from a variety of sources. "Threnody" puts to good use lyrics lifted from a Dorothy Parker poem. "Lily of the West" and "Nottingham Ale" are traditional pieces. "Buckingham Palace/Dunford's Fancy" finds its source material in the pen of A.A. Milne. Neil Gaiman provides lyrics for three songs: "A Meaningful Dialogue," "All Purpose Folk Song (Child Ballad #1)" and "Personal Thing." Lorraine wrote the instrumental "The Wine with the Stars In It/Mr. and Mrs. O'Mara," while Lorraine and Emma joined forces with Stemple and writer Steven Brust for "Race to the Moon." Todd Menton wrote "Sure of Me," on which he plays mandolin and tin whistle. "Ride On" is by Jimmy McCarthy and is coupled with the traditional "Reverend Guinness."

These tracks, compiled on a single CD, are a mixed bag of styles and moods, and certainly some stick out more than others. "Driving With Noel" remains my favorite. Lorraine's other instrumental track, "The Wine with the Stars In It/Mr. and Mrs. O'Mara," is a nice showpiece for her fiddling strengths. Her fiddle also adds some lush background to the atmospheric "Ride On."

Parker's "Threnody" features some particularly nice vocal harmonies. "Buckingham Palace" is nicely frantic and fun, very appropriate to the storytime lyrics. "Nottingham Ale" is recorded in an aptly drunken chorus, employing members of the Tim Malloys and a host of others to get that true crowded-tavern sound. (Pay careful attention and you'll hear Lorraine and Emma sneaking out at the end, apparently to make a few phone calls.)

Gaiman provides some of the real gems on this album. "A Meaningful Dialogue" is a classic of mature communication within relationships, with the delightful chorus "I've got my fingers in my ears / I'm going lalalalalalalalalala / I can't hear you!" Delightful! Gaiman's "All Purpose Folk Song" is a grand spoof, tossing as many folk standard devices into the lyrics as can possibly fit. The chorus offers this generous caveat: "You can cross out or forget about the bits that don't apply." "It's a Personal Thing" applies a regal, proper air to a love song, where pride is an impediment to romance.

Besides Emma and Lorraine, the album features Stemple on guitars, bass and keyboard, Menton on tin whistle and mandolin, Lojo Russo on mandolin, bass and backing vocals, Robin Adnan Anders on drums, Leo Whitebird on bass, dobro and Bushmill congas, Armitage Shanks on accordion, Steven Brust on rik and doumbek, John "Big Sexy" Sjogren on Indian shaker, and various others on backing vocals and "marvelous hand clapping."

Let's be honest, traditionalists aren't going to enjoy this album much. The traditional crowd certainly isn't the Flash Girls' intended target anyway; they're taking dead aim at folks who like the unusual, the quirky, the daring. (The Flash Girls should definitely work on the soundtrack if Terri Windling's Bordertown series ever makes it to the big screen.) Cunning musicianship sets traditional roots on end for a unique package sure to find a home in the hearts of fey folkies everywhere.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 25 August 2001