David Herrle reviews Abel, Rawls & Hayes' Flash on a Film album
produced by Seawall Records
purchase the CD
"Out on the gulf one morning, I swam a mile or two. And losing sight of land, I let the current navigate."
Ah, the three-piece band. The musical trinity. Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The Vince Guaraldi Trio. Crazy Horse. Rush. The Police. Aramis, Athos, Porthos. The Three Amigos. (Somebody stop me.) There's something about that triune configuration - fIREHOSE calls it "the 3-way" - that hooks us.
All that to segue to Abel, Rawls & Hayes, a Georgian indie band comprised of three experienced, poetic artists who blow away most chart-toppers. Abel's and Rawls' history goes back to their 1970s membership in the Jacob Rye Band. Abel & Rawls produced two albums together: Two Months and As We Wake From Our Sleep. Keyboardist Hayes came from his own active music career to collaborate on Flash On A Film. Lap steel, mandolin, guitars, and lead vocals come from Ward Abel; keyboards, flute, and vocals come from Sloan Hayes; and Steve Rawls takes care of bass, mandolin, guitars, and more vocals.
This is a diversely talented bunch of cats. And they're humble and smart enough to include an extended ensemble to enhance their basic sound. A special nod to Joel Kosche, Tommy Strain, Matt Melon (additional guitars), Donny Henderson and Jane Abel (additional vocals), David Bruce, Phil Hart, and Calvin Kelley (additional drums), Will Turpin (additional bass), and Bill Turpin (Dobro).
The pooled musicianship and the original players alone produce deep and expertly mixed passages throughout the album, especially in the finale ballad, "Waiting on the Wind (Santiago)," my third-favorite piece. I'm sure the studio work was a treat beyond the given "Grr"s and "Dammit, start over"s. These folks have it together, and they should be proud.
I've enough general curiosity and eclectic interest in music to listen outside of my preferences, so after catching ARH on an Internet radio show a while back, I was impressed. Then I repeatedly listened to Flash On A Film and decided that they have a peculiar and worthy sound that lives between the careful recording compositions of the late 1960s to 1980 and catchy pop rock. Comparison helps describe bands' sounds in written reviews, so I'll try my best to do ARH justice: Think Moody Blues (particularly in "Just A Night"), Leo Kottke, less distorted Neil Young, non-satiric Horse Flies, some Jon Lord finesse, the lighter side of Yes, a tinge of Springsteen, and lighter Pink Floyd from the Meddle album - mixed with slight classic country and slight, slight bluegrass.
Ward Abel delivers unconventional vocals, part Neil Young and part Chris Colbourn from Buffalo Tom (another great three piece). Alone or combined with the backing vocals, he can grip the heart. The harmonization is like sudden light through a prism. Just lovely. Like stunning scenes in films, Flash contains many enthralling moments through radiant instrumentation: 2 minutes and 55 seconds into "(Great Pains Of) Texas," the choruses and flute solo in "Sunrise (Color of Roses)," the choruses in "Just A Night" (lead-vocalized by Hayes), one minute and 55 seconds into "What I Though You Said," two minutes and ten seconds into "What Do We Do Now," all the vocals and dramatic choruses, guitar solo, and strings in "Waiting on the Wind (Santiago)," and when they belt out "They say no man's a rock, an island, though I claim to be" in "My Apologies" (my fourth favorite song on Flash).
Flash becomes comfortable by the third track, "Ask For Calm," an accordian-accompanied song with excellent backing vocals. I would have chosen different tracks for the two introductory slots, I must say. "So Just Set Me Free" seems more appropriate for a mid-album song - although the trilling mandolin, flute, and beautiful collective vocals are nicely revealed. This goes for "Flash On A Film," too.
My favorite piece happens to be an instrumental: "The Ride Home." Calvin Kelley does the percussion and the lovely Jane Abel provides angelic vocals. (Excuse the cliche, but it applies.) Only listening to this piece does it justice. I play it over and over while writing. It is reminiscent of Leo Kottke's pretty compositions, particularly "Doorbell" from his My Father's Face masterpiece. Alternating between minimal guitar that babbles in place like a brook stopped by magic but still undulating and a release into free movement, "Ride Home" seems to convey both the alive, "frozen" moment and time's compelling passage despite our leisurely or desperate focus. With each play, I'm immersed in yesteryear glimmers, smitten by bygone drama made starkly present. Absolutely perfect and beautiful. Certain songs perform this time-travel trick for me, from Earl Klugh Trio's rendition of "Now We're One" to A-Ha's "Take On Me."
"40 Days & 40 Nights" is second on my fave list. Abel's voice and the backing vocals are tip-top. "For 40 days and 40 nights I wandered all alone. Went in circles many times. I can't shake you from my mind...Still you call my name...I hear you call my name...Fallen from your grace - it's true that I can't escape from you." A lost but driven, alone but accompanied Moses/floatin Noah-artist singing to the Spirit-Muse he cannot shake, who calls his name despite seemingly fruitless circles and idle drifting? (Or maybe not. Everything usually boils down to some woman. Haha! Sorry, ladies.)
"She said my name so softly, then spoke it once again. She called me Santiago. We were looking for El Derado." These are the most intriguing lyrics of the epic "Waiting on the Wind." Who is she? And why does she refer to the narrator as Santiago (which, as far as I know, means Saint James)? Any reference to El Dorado, no matter how obscure, is curious. Though Flash On A Film ends on another, eleventh track, I consider this song to be the finale - and it would serve as a splendid way to end a live gig. All the stylistic elements of Abel, Rawls & Hayes surface in this longest piece on the album (over seven minutes). I can't help but harmonize along with the ecstatic choruses. Alone, of course.
The official closing track is anticlimactic. Set to a drum-machine-type rhythm and somewhat sinister guitar and keyboard work, Abel talks and sings some lyrics about "black rain(?)" - and the song abruptly stops as if the recording equipment was hit with a blackout, an unplugging, or a Hummer. Though this isn't a bad ending for the album, I'll say it's unnecessary. It doesn't fit. Such quirky conclusions are popular among creative bands. But, for me, they seldom work. So I'll defiantly identify good ole "Santiago" as my ending.
ARH's forte is their choruses. They rev up and let loose during most of them, and that's where their beauty best shines. Technically proficient, well-written, tight-but-not-stuffy songs make Flash On A Film a formidable work of art, complete with slick liner notes and photographs. A professional video of "My Apologies" is even included for those with Macromedia Flash. Even though I tend to avoid CD extras (except for Kylie Minogue's "Slow" video on her guiltily pleasurable Body Language disc), this bit is worth viewing if not just to see how the trio weaves their art.
My favorite tracks (in order of preference) are: "The Ride Home," "40 Days & 40 Nights," "Waiting on the Wind (Santiago)," "My Apologies," and "Sunrise (Color of Roses)." These tracks alone could vouch for the band's entire oeuvre so far, but the other songs are strong and good.
This album seems to be about remembered or fantasized moments, about capturing images and feelings if only for the duration of a song, and contemplatively resisting time. It involves an hourglass, light quickly turning to shadow, "enough lessons to fill a thousand books," peace amidst guns, "fields full of memories," "just a night," "an old man's dream," a "lonely road," "when your memory sings," "another passing."
All amounts to the song I love most, "The Ride Home": a losing but finding, a memory but presence, a travel but returning. Elton John had his candle in the wind; ARH have their flash on a film:
"This moment eludes me; it's here and it's gone...This vision remains with me, though it fades it seems to last. Unstoppable future, unchangeable past. We can't hold forever today. So hand me my camera, before we go away..."
- review by David Herrle 10/2005
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