The Flash Girls,
Maurice & I
(Fabulous Records, 1995)

Words by renowned fantasy author Jane Yolen, music by Boiled in Lead alumnus Adam Stemple (Yolen's son), and powerful vocal harmonies by Emma Bull (also a noted fantasy author) and Lorraine Garland -- it takes only the first track -- "Prince Charming Comes," steeped in fairytale archetypes -- to know this is an album to be reckoned with. The song, which also boasts Bull and Stemple on guitar, Garland on fiddle and Lojo Russo on mandolin, is only a hint of things to come.

Quirky British novelist and Sandman writer Neil Gaiman made several contributions to Maurice & I, the 1995 release from the Flash Girls. First is "Banshee," which expands on a popular Gaiman assumption that everyone is just a little in love with death. The song is haunting, an enticing blend of fear, fascination and need.

Bull and Garland provide the music to Gaiman's unsettling lyrics in "A Girl Needs a Knife" -- "I have bought myself a new knife, / I hold it and stare at the line of my knife, / and I think about things that it's done." It's a simple song, almost innocent in tone, but with an underlying darkness which can catch you off-guard. Then, with a quick switch in atmosphere, the Girls bounce along with John R. Burr's honkytonk piano stylings in the rhyme-filled adventure song, "Yeti."

Alan Moore, like Gaiman a famed comic book writer, joined forces with Tim Perkins for the wonderful "Me & Dorothy Parker," an outlaw ballad which does the sardonic writer, poet and critic proud.

"Amaryllis," a Bull original, includes a few musical snippets you'll be amazed to recognize in the context. I won't spoil the surprise, but Garland's fiddle will evoke hints of '70s progressive rock before sawing into her own original composition, "Elvira in Paris" with the aid of Russo on mandolin. Talk about startling, wait 'til you hear "Mike's Magic," another Garland original featuring Stemple on the squeaky duck, including the wordless vocalizations of the Drunken Male Chorus, and ending with the most irreverent corruption of "Scotland the Brave" I've heard yet.

The album also has a kick-ass version of the traditional "Heathen Horse" (take the name with a grain of salt), featuring Garland on fiddle, Bull on guitar, Drew Miller on dulcimer and Steven Brust on doumbek. Garland's original tune "Neil's Reel" adds lively spice to a vaguely bluesy rendition of the traditional courting song, "Star of the County Down" (boasting a semi-psychedelic fiddle interlude). A lovely version of the Scots ballad "Twa Bonny Maidens" goes slightly astral with the addition of Frank Runyon on a spacey electric guitar -- and just wait 'til Garland goes into a multi-tracked fiddle interpretation of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." The ballad "November Song," by Mark Henley, ends the album on an upbeat note.

Maurice & I is everything folk-rock should be: lively and fresh, bold innovations built atop thick veins of tradition. The songwriting is clever, the musicianship is tight and the scattering of familiar tunes are arranged in distinctive, original sets. The vocals are the strongest piece of the album -- their's is an odd mix of voices which grow on the listener a little more each time the music is played. There is no good reason not to own this album, although it can be tough to find. A good place to start is the Girls' official website. Happy hunting!

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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