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'Half You Half Me': Musical Tales Of Mysterious Biblical Women

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Sex, betrayal and weird skin disease -- Bible stories aren't so different from the everyday.

So says Alicia Jo Rabins, frontwoman of Girls in Trouble, which released its second album of "post-biblical art pop" on Tuesday (May 17).

The songs on Half You Half Me (JDub Records) are part of a growing body of work -- about 20 songs at this point -- that mines biblical texts for obscure, unusual and mysterious tales of strong (and mischievous) women.

On the first album, released in 2009, the characters were clearly heroines, and Rabins stuck mostly to stories from the Five Books of Moses for material. On Half You Half Me, there's more ambiguity about the women's morality and some of the songs draw on sources outside of Jewish text entirely.

On "Lemons," for example, Rabins uses Sufi poems and Quranic texts to craft a song about Potifar's wife (Zuleikha in the Persian sources), who tries to seduce Joseph. Zuleikha's friends mock her for loving Joseph. Her payback, in this musical midrash, involves citrus and knives. And on "Bethesda," one of two violin-driven instrumental pieces on the album, Rabins interprets a New Testament story from the Gospel of John about an angel hovering over water to give it healing properties.

Interfaith engagement is an increasing part of what Girls In Trouble is doing. Everyone in the band has his or her own story, Rabins said. Some are Jewish. One person is a committed yogi. One grew up going to yeshiva, and, though he is no longer observant, still has a deep connection with the text. The band members are more likely to analyze a Miles Davis drum beat than debate some aspect of religion, but interfaith concerts, like the one Girls In Trouble played at the N.Y. Public Library, can bring out a great dialogue between the audience and band. Rabins hopes this will happen again in the future.

"We Are Androgynous" by Girls In Trouble

Still, Rabins is Jewish and this is the major source of her inspiration. Few songs on the new album stray from specifically Jewish texts. In fact, the opening track, "We Are Androgynous," starts right from the beginning. The biblical beginning. The first beginning, at least, as two creation stories are tucked into Genesis, the first book of the Torah. Before Adam and Eve, it was Adam and Lilith. But the first man's first mate was a bit subversive, to say the least, and Lilith was banished. Now, she's a lonely demon pining for Adam. And that's just the first song.

Lilith is matched -- if not surpassed -- in obscurity by the subject of another song, "Tell Me," which relates the story of Serakh bat Asher. Serakh is the granddaughter of Jacob and it is she who tells the ailing patriarch after many mournful years that his favorite son, Joseph, is alive. As legend has it, Serakh delivered this joyful message to her zeide in a song. Some other marginalia about this mysterious figure: She never physically died, but was carried to heaven, like Elijah, alive. That and she will supposedly announce the coming of the Messiah. A minor character, to be sure.

The famous females of the Bible -- the matriarchs -- get their due respects on Half You Half Me, too. "DNA" tells another side of the story of Rachel and Leah's successive marriages to Jacob (spoiler: the sisters were in cahoots the whole time), and "Emeralds & Microscopes" introduces Rebecca to Isaac just as his mother, Sarah, has died. And on "O General" and "Waltz for a Beheading," respectively, Deborah and Judith find their ways into the frame.

Touring the Orchard

"Although we're far from Eden/and dirty with the centuries/come lie with me beneath them/imaginary apple trees."

As if to weave every Jewish woman of every age into this sonic tale, two more songs, "Rubies" and "Apples," are based on rabbinic sources about the ideal and redemptive woman. After all, in Jewish mysticism, an apple orchard or breath-taking jewel commonly represents the divine feminine.

Girls In Trouble is a song cycle and a band. It is also a text study. For Rabins, who grew up secular, this project is a way to stay connected Jewish thought and practice. As a young adult, she attended to Pardes, a progressive egalitarian yeshiva in Jerusalem whose name evokes Eden and the mystical orchard, and had two years of great chevrutah experience (the traditional, one-on-one mode of Jewish learning). Now, on the road and far from the holy city, Rabins draws from boxes of "old, holy books" and studies these stories mostly alone.

"I kind of see everything that you meet each day and come to over and over again as spiritual practice," Rabins said on the road from Atlanta to Carrboro, N.C., Girls In Trouble toured the southern United States in the weeks leading up to the new album's official release (to be celebrated with a hometown show at Joe's Pub in Manhattan on Thursday). Writing poetry, creating music, friendship and marriage are all part of the violinist's daily spiritual life. (It helps that her husband, bassist Aaron Hartman, is in the band.)

When Rabins returned from Pardes in 2000, she had to balance touring life and observant life. She began playing in Golem in 2004, her first Jewish music playing experience, and felt less pressure then to be "observant." She now feels very intuitive about her observance. For example, she says the traveler's prayer every day. Even on Shabbat. She feels she's probably one of the only people who would say this prayer while traveling in a car on the Sabbath.

Investigating spiritual experience is a big part of Rabins' work -- specifically, investigating spiritual experience that brings people together. A lot of times there's a distance between the artist and the audience, she said. With this song cycle, there's a closeness created through the stories told. The concert setting is a great way to have this dialogue.

Too often, religion is simplified, she said. All the adult, complicated stories get pushed under the rug. Rabins studied English in college and didn't have a lot of familiarity with the text of the Torah at the time. She loved literature and was gratified -- and surprised -- to find that the stories in the Torah are great literature. Similarly, part of touring, beyond bringing people together and "studying" these new/ancient stories, is being surprised and gratified by unexpected twists.

Like earlier on, when Girls In Trouble was supposed to play a house show in Columbia, S.C. Arriving in town, the band learned that the house was shut down for noise violations the week prior. Stuck trying to find a venue at the last minute, they walked into the communications museum in downtown Charleston -- filled with old recording gear, cameras and weird stuff, Rabins said -- and got permission to put together a show there. Amid the wires and speakers and electronics was a Stroh violin, which is kinda like a violin with a horn on it for amplification that was created in the early 1900s. Rabins, who had only ever seen the instrument on video, was able to play this bizarre violin during the show.

At Joe's Pub on Thursday, the full incarnation -- all five pieces -- of Girls In Trouble will be present. To Rabins, that means the show will be a very full compared to the stripped-down three-piece sound during this tour. Drums, accordion, live violin looping. Musically diverse and emotionally present.

After this tour, she'll start mining the Talmud for material. The volume of stories there is almost endless, and the stories themselves almost weirder than real life.

"The Talmudic stories get pretty psychedelic," Rabins said.

But don't assume that trippy anecdotes will equal a new surreal sound. Rabins likes tension and angles, and she's tempted to compose grounded tunes about heavenly matters.

"I like the music to express the story," she said, "but I also like it to challenge the story."

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