Flash Girls: Play Each Morning Wild Queen

Reprinted from Green Man Review.

They talk about the Islands and they have been called Wild Queens. I wonder if they were not really Anne Bonney and Mary Read, those piratical dames, those buccaneer broads, those sword-and-knife wielding beauties of the Bounding Main. After all, did anyone actually see Pansy and Violet in the same room with Anne and Mary? I think not. I remain among their greatest fans, especially now that I know their secret. — Jane Yolen, on the back page of the liner notes for Play Each Morning Wild Queen

The Flash Girls were the musical equivalent of Thelma and Louise, a pair of wild women musicians who’d taken their songs on the road, spreading chaos behind them merrily. They’re what happens when you throw in the Celtic rock talent of Cats Laughing or Boiled in Lead, the peculiar English sentiments of Neil Gaiman, the urban phantasms of one “Colonel” Emma Bull, and the genius of “The Fabulous” Lorraine Garland, self-styled Duchess of Hazard, into a blender and serve chilled with a twist of lime. Or, to put it another way, it’s what happens when some really creative, talented people got together and decided to have some serious fun.

Play Each Morning Wild Queen marked the third adventure of Emma Bull and Lorraine Garland in their alter(ed) egos of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones, aka The Flash Girls. In her previous tenure with a musical group, the much-renowned Cats Laughing, Emma Bull demonstrated that her talents were as much instrumental and vocal as they were literary, leaping from the Fae-haunted streets of Minneapolis to the stage, as though invoking one of her own characters. And while like the Flash Girls, Cats Laughing is no more, its legacy also lives on.

In The Return of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones, they introduced us to characters so real that they ultimately took on a life of their own in Chris Claremont’s short-lived comic book, Sovereign Seven. In Maurice and I, they continued to expand their horizons, mixing traditional songs with ones penned by Neil Gaiman and Jane Yolen, among others. And now they were back again for their final CD.

Play Each Morning Wild Queen was as different from its predecessors as they were from Cats Laughing. With Emma on vocals, guitar, washboard and spoons, and Lorraine on vocals and violin, they demonstrated the full range of their abilities, while assuring us that, yes, they were having fun.

And they had brought friends: Robin Anders joins in on the drums, and another Boiled in Lead colleague, Adam Stemple, helped out on bass and keyboards. Lojo Russo, formerly of Cats Laughing, brought her bass into the mix, and Steven Brust contributed dumbek as well as lyrical assistance.

The traditional songs of the mix (“Nottingham Ale”, “Lily of the West”) were joined by songs written by Neil Gaiman, Steven Brust, Dorothy Parker, A.A. Milne, Todd Menton, Jimmy McCarthy, and of course, Emma and Lorraine.

Looking at the above list, it’s no wonder that the offerings that were put forth in this album ranged from the unusual to the unexpected.

So, were they any good? You bet. I’ll admit up front, their style wasn’t for everyone. The Flash Girls seemed to occupy a certain, oft-unused portion of the consciousness, taking up residence when you were not looking and refusing to pay rent on time, if at all. They started out with a nice, almost subtle instrumental, the darkly atmospheric “Driving With Noel,” a heavily bass-accented tune that had my walls shivering and my cats eying me suspiciously. It’s immediately my favorite song of the batch, without having heard the others, the sort of song that should be turned up louder, if only I wasn’t afraid of causing an earthquake in Virginia. It’s vaguely Celtic, vaguely folk, with a healthy dose of violin and drums, the afore-mentioned bass, and an erupting volcano for good measure.

It’s almost a relief to go from the moody dark autumn night of “Driving” to the Dorothy Parker inspired “Threnody,” which presents us Our Heroines on vocals, the usual suspects on backup instruments, and one of Parker’s own poems as the basis for the lyrics. What can I say, except that Mrs. Parker would undoubtedly be pleased with the treatment of her work.

“Lily of the West” proves that the Girls could handle traditional as well as they did other sources, throwing us into the story of the man who met, loved, was betrayed by, and lost, Flory, Lily of the West. Cheerful? Only if you like the sort of love that can survive betrayal and death, to the very end. I hear some people were big into that intensity of faithfulness.

Then it’s to A.A. Milne, whose words, taken from When We Were Very Young give us the core of “Buckingham Palace/Dunford’s Fancy.” After the previous song, it’s a very welcome change of pace and atmosphere. Fast-paced, witty, light-hearted in tone, catchy, it’s Christopher Robin and Alice going down to the Buckingham Palace, and it doesn’t let up in its energy levels until the end.

“A Meaningful Dialogue” starts off with a sort of ’50s girl group vocalization but rapidly degenerates into the aftermath of a bad relationship: “I’ve got my fingers in my ears I’m going lalalalalalalalala/I can’t hear you/I’ve got my fingers in my ears I’m going lalalalalalalala/Going la la la”. Admit it. Haven’t you ever wanted to do that? It works when the boss gets mad, it’s the solution to the worst day you’ve ever had, and sometimes it’s the best response available. Childish, yet meaningful, and all too entertaining on some levels.

“Race to the Moon” was the result of a collaboration between Emma, Lorraine, Steven Brust and Adam Stemple, blending nursery rhymes like “Little Bo Peep” and “Ring around the Rosy” to create a whole new way of looking at things. Then it’s time for another instrumental, “The Wine With The Stars In It/Mr. and Mrs. O’Mara,” a fine traditional tune written by Lorraine, backed up by Adam Stemple and Steven Brust.

“All Purpose Folk Song (Child Ballad #1)” was another one of those songs that had to be heard to be believed. Words by Neil Gaiman, inspiration by all those Child Ballads that were the meat and potatoes of any folklorist or folk musician. This one’s an a capella tune, but you’ll hardly miss the music. “Sure of Me” speaks to all those doubts a lover has ever had to assuage in his or her partner, with just the slightest hint of wryness.

As the song says, “Even with an explanation/How will you be sure of me?”

Back to the traditionals for “Ride On/Reverend Guiness” for another haunting tale that might or might not have once been called “The Right Reverend Guilderness’ Jig,” and then it’s next door for a Neil Gaiman creation, “Personal Thing,” which is as much of a love song as we may ever expect to get from the man most famous for Sandman and American Gods, that is to say, it’s full of gorgeous imagery and magical suggestion.

Finally, we wind up our tour of that ill-used part of your consciousness with “Nottingham Ale,” a traditional song about drinking, without which no proper folk(ish)album would be complete. Drink up your Nottingham Ale, boys! (And I won’t mention the ‘bonus track’ that you’ll get if you let the CD play on past the last track. Let’s just say it’s… interesting.)

So yes. Play Each Morning Wild Queen was good. It’s unique, fascinating, esoteric, and just plain fun. I haven’t decided if I like it more than the other Flash Girls offerings, but then again, does that matter? Take this one on its own, or with the others, or on faith, and enjoy it fully.

(Fabulous Records, 2001)

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