Flash Girls, The Return of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones (SteelDragon Press/Spin Art, 1993)

“I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses… I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even death…”
–Professor Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The above quote reflects the near-impossible task I’ve been struggling with for months; namely, how to describe and review The Return of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones, the first release by Emma Bull and Lorraine Garland in their pseudoimaginary guises as the musical duo known as the Flash Girls. I’ve tried to find the right words to describe something so ineffably unique, so different from the normal run of things, that it truly would have been easier to bottle fame and brew glory. Even as my editors graduated from worried emails to threatening letters to sending out the Green Man Brute Squad to try and chain me to my desk, even as my wife began to wonder why I kept muttering ‘Flash Girls… Flash Girls…’ in my sleep, even as the cats complained about litterboxes gone forgotten while I concentrated on this problem, I worried about how to explain the Flash Girls, much less explain why they’re worth listening to. Finally, as I was on the run from the secret Green Man Internal Inquisitors, being chased by nuns with guns and monks with trained monkeys over the wilds of Scotland, and taking refuge in the Goblin Market, a solution came to me. And all it would cost would be my soul… That being something I have no right to sell, I bartered away one of the much-coveted War For the Oaks movie trailers, in exchange for this advice: “Start from the beginning.”

Who are the Flash Girls? That depends on who you ask. On one level, they are, as I’ve said, Emma Bull and the Fabulous Lorraine Garland. Emma Bull is best known around these parts as one of our favorite authors, having written War For The Oaks, Bone Dance, Finder and more, both alone and in collaboration with her husband, Will Shetterly. She’s long been associated with the Minneapolis-based writer’s group known as the Scribblies, and currently lives in southern California, where she’s hoping to take over the world through song and written word. The Fabulous Lorraine refuses to divulge anything about herself more profound than that she’s from Michigan, may or may not be descended from space aliens, and is extraordinarily musically inclined. Together, the duo combine folk, Gothic, traditional, and contemporary styles for a truly unique listening experience.

On a second level, the Flash Girls are Pansy Smith and Violet Jones, a musical pair whose origins are shrouded in mystery and doubt. They may have toured Europe. They may have performed in a movie in 1932. They were almost reunited in the 1950s on “This Is Your Life” but that fell through. Due to the unreliability of sources and witnesses, it’s been said that “… it sounds like [Emma and Lorraine] have devoted [their] lives to recreating the musical achievements of two women who might not even have existed.” It seems as though no one knows the truth, though Neil Gaiman has come the closest of any outsider. For a transcript of his conversation, see the liner notes of The Return of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones, reprinted here.

On a third level, and this one verifiable, Pansy Smith and Violet Jones were two supporting characters in the creator-owned Chris Claremont comic book, Sovereign Seven, in which seven extradimensionally-stranded superheroes end up at a mysterious coffeehouse, and meet two equally mysterious women, who may or may not be all they seem to be. That Chris Claremont has long been a fan of the Flash Girls, and before them, Cats Laughing (Emma Bull’s previous band), often sneaking them into his comics, is either a coincidence, or a cunning plan.

So then. Emma Bull and the Fabulous Lorraine either are, or are not, trying to recreate the musical accomplishments of a pair of musicians who may, or may not have actually existed. -Someone-, however, has released three albums (besides this, they’ve done Maurice and I and Play Each Morning Wild Queen). What’s truth, and what’s fiction?

Might as well ask “What’s signal and what’s noise?” It’s much more appropriate, given the circumstances.

I’ve said that the Flash Girls have a unique sound. Well, yes. Many things have a unique sound. Three monkeys gargling while banging their heads on steel drums has a unique sound. But trust me, the Flash Girls are far, far better. For one thing, Neil Gaiman writes some of their songs. Perhaps that’s how they ended up with the quirky Goth-romance “Postmortem On Our Love”, which will forever change the way you look at a relationship…. (with lyrics like “I’ve been dissecting all the letters that you sent me/ Slicing through them looking for the real you/Cutting through the fat and gristle of each torturous epistle/Trying to work out what to do”).

Besides that song, Gaiman is also credited or co-credited on “Riding the Flame/Little Beggarman”, “Tea and Corpses”, “Sonnet in the Dark” and “The Herring Song”. With topics ranging from comically poisoned tea, to a woman’s lifelong enjoyment of herrings, mixing dark imagery and an even darker absurdity, he brings a certain bizarre genius to the lyrics, that’s matched in kind by Lorraine’s own talents, and the stylings of Emma Bull (“Signal To Noise”, etc).

But those are just the lyrics. How about the music? Well, it’s fluid, flexible, adaptable, chimerical. It changes from song to song, taking up a haunting Celtic air, then dropping into a wry humor, sidestepping over into a cappella whimsy, bowing out for a song to give way to a wicked streak. No two songs are the same, incorporating traditional such as “Knickerbocker Lane/Drowsy Maggie” and “Norwegian Dance From Hungary #1″ and all-new creations such as those already mentioned.

I -told- you it was hard to describe the essence of the Flash Girls. They’re like images in smoke: as soon as you think you’ve seen something, it’s gone. You can’t describe it to anyone else, and you certainly can’t capture it for study. It’s fleeting and ephemeral, and repeated listenings bring out something new every time. This is definitely something worth checking out.

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