Written for Wears the Trousers 11.07.11
You can argue that the Devil has all the best tunes, but the Bible at least occasionally does a nice line in storytelling. Melodrama and metaphors for human existence pour off the scriptural pages etched in blood and tears. For Brooklyn poet, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Alicia Jo Rabins, stories from the Hebrew scriptures contemplate the complexity of women’s lives in a way that remains relatable today. Her attempt to demonstrate this is Girls In Trouble, an ongoing art-rock project undertaken with her partner and bassist Aaron Hartman, wedding an interest in ancient scriptural stories to expertise in string-led indie and folk-rock.
The album’s cast of girls features both the famous and the obscure, taking in sisters, daughters, mothers-in-law, peasants, aristocrats and androgynous Sumerian demons. Their troubles are equally varied, ranging from jealousy and unrequited love to exile, enslavement and murder. The musical backdrop to their stories, full of plaintive strings forming simple but insistent melodies over spare percussion and delicate layers of guitar and accordion, has a greater depth and detail on this album than on their 2009 self-titled debut. It’s evocative music, conjuring suitably ancient images of deserts, burnished brass and billowing flags. Rabins succeeds in choosing from antiquity the kind of trials, reflections and challenges which are timeless and universal, and her lyrics repackage them deftly and succinctly in impressionistic lines with the occasional arrestingly picturesque image.
The album’s opening track ‘We Are Androgynous’ draws on the figure of Lilith, revisiting the theme of androgyny as a primordial state of grace. Defined by Rabins’ chipper vocal and insistently jabbing strings, it’s an initially distant and eventually intriguing song which sets the tone for most of what follows. ‘Lemons’ takes a sidelong glance at the story of Joseph, retelling his attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife from the latter’s perspective in a hazy and sly, subtly erotic meander. ‘O General’ is heavily laden with dramatic import and ‘Rubies’ bobs and ripples with liquid brightness. Rabins, a classically trained violinist, gives the instrument a starring role – tentatively plucked on ‘Tell Me’, slicing incisively on the vibrant and victorious ‘DNA’, and weaving colour into the sparse framework of ‘Emeralds & Microscopes’. The album’s instrumentals – the sinuous twists of ‘Bethesda’ and ‘Waltz For A Beheading’, with the violin’s insouciant skitter lent depth by the drums – are no less interesting for lacking lyrics.
Girls In Trouble is a neat conceit, but how well does it lives up to its promise? Rabins’ voice is one for suggestion rather than command, tending to melt into the background of many of the songs here, while much of the music itself is similarly gentle and placid, awaiting the listener’s attention and interest rather than seizing it outright. Perhaps too subtle and self-effacing to be an immediately gripping yarn, the album nevertheless improves with repeated listenings as you’re drawn into the world that Rabins recreates. Give these characters a chance to tell their stories and you might find yourself absorbed.