A gentle, initially distant, rhythm guitar draws us into this album Half You Half Me by New York duo Girls in Trouble. But when the gorgeously fluid voice of Alicia Jo Rabins begins, one is stopped short by the arresting incongruity of the opening line: We are androgynous, double-faced beings.
This is the just start of a fascinating musical journey, characterised by evocative lyrical pictures and beautiful song-writing. For this is an album written by a classically trained violinist and singer who has been influenced by an eclectic mix of American folk, Jewish klezmer and even punk and Leonard Cohen. I heard faint echoes of the likes of great female vocalists like Tracey Thorn, Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries and Sinead O’Connor.
Rabbins works in partnership with her now husband, bassist Aaron Hartman, and he has drawn in a wider group of musicians to create a musical anthology that is at times hauntingly beautiful and profoundly memorable.
However, it is the album’s subject matter which most intrigued me: the women of the Jewish scriptures. This is the result of Rabins’ Jewish upbringing on the American East Coast, and in particular, 2 years’ study in Jerusalem, and is the second album to explore such themes. This does not mean that the influences are always strictly biblical, because ancient rabbinic interpretations or even other Ancient Near Eastern traditions have a part to play.
So the opening track (We are androgynous) is takes the story of Lilith, a Sumerian demoness who some considered to be one half of the male/female creation in God’s image (in Genesis 1) as opposed to the separate characters of Adam & Eve (in Genesis 2). Then Tell Me (which opens with a lovely pizzicato accompaniment which is then beefed up with the rest of the band) is about a mystical figure called Serakh bat Asher who, legend had it, knew where Joseph’s bones were buried so that they could be carried off during the Exodus.
But some of the other songs’ subjects are more recognisable. Here are a handful:
- Lemons is a punk-inspired and mildly seductive song sung by Potiphar’s wife (traditionally named Zuleika) as she reflects on Joseph’s refusal to succumb to her wiles. Hers is not a perspective that we often hear – perhaps because her revenge (archetypal in the long history of scorned women) was cruel. But the song closes with a remarkable insight which surely echoes throughout the Jewish Scriptures, and indeed, through to the New Testament. For I guess the Messiah David would no doubt have agreed with the last line when on the run from King Saul:
I wrote a letter and I gave it to you
but you refused to read it all the way through
And now you’re running just as fast as you can run
Sometimes it’s dangerous to be the chosen one.
- DNA is an upbeat folksong addressed by Rachel to her sister Leah, and is based on a midrash in which Jacob and Rachel know about her father’s trickery. But she is torn by divided loyalties between her love for her sister and for the man who loves her.
- Rubies is a lilting love song to the Bible’s Superwoman, the woman of valour from Proverbs 31. She is clearly a force to be reckoned with.
- Emeralds and Microscopes is a moving and slow-burning invitation by Isaac’s new wife Rebecca, to Sarah, her mother-in-law who died before they could meet.
- O General sets the story of two powerful women: Deborah and Yael (Jael) who killed Sisera with that lethal device, the tent-peg. Don’t mess! The dark humour of the event is reinforced by an instrumental epilogue, which is I suppose a sort of victory folk waltz.
- Apples is a plaintive reflection on the pain of a nation enslaved. Legend had it that the Israelites in Egypt were preserved from extinction by the wives who had to seduce (under imaginary apple trees) their husbands too exhausted by their strenuous toil for making love.
Towards the end, the album includes a couple of instrumental tracks – Bethesda (interestingly partly inspired by the story in John’s gospel of the pool where Jesus heals) and the rather macabrely titled Waltz for a Beheading (inspired by the apocryphal story of Judith beheading Holofernes). This latter track in particular is disarmingly and unnervingly jaunty, demanding a response of curiosity at least.
What I love, though, apart from the music, is that these songs are not afraid to explore the complexities and ambiguities of human life. I strongly believe this is one of the most unsettling, but thoroughly realistic, aspects of biblical narrative. For in these ancient texts, we are presented (or rather confronted) with a true depiction of individuals, warts and all. In fact, one of the Bible’s greatest assets is that it never resorts to hagiography when describing the heroes of salvation history (just take the life of David in 1&2 Samuel as a case in point). And Girls in Trouble here offer an inspiring, if at times attractively quirky, depiction of these complexities.
So this is a fantastic album, lyrical and spare, beautiful and haunting. It’s no accident that I’ve had it on repeat on my ipod for several weeks.