Can Bible stories mix with rock music? Alicia Jo Rabins says yes, and her second album with her band Girls in Trouble “Half You Half Me” more than proves it.
We first wrote about Girls in Trouble over a year ago, when the band stopped in town to play a show supporting its first album. Thirteen months have passed, and Rabins and company are about to re- lease “Half You Half Me,” a more mature, developed piece of plaintive, orchestrated folk music delving deeper into the theme of, well, girls in trouble. Girls from the Torah, that is.
As Rabins told the Chronicle last year, her songs are meant to “translate the stories to be relatable today,” as she “wanted to bring the stories out, partially for the sake of the characters’ stories being heard, but also for people who are interested in the Torah, but don’t have the tools or desire to sit down and find the good stories.”
It’s an interesting idea — to repackage Torah stories for a Torah-shy audience — but the whole thing rests on one question: Are the songs any good? Anyone can sing about the Torah and have great source material, but only a good musician can make it transcend that material and stand on its own.
On “Half You Half Me,” Rabins does just that.
The album wraps Rabins’ stories about characters including Rachel, Leah, Deborah, Sarah, Judith and the lesser-known Serakh bat Asher, Potiphar and others in lush, beautiful music full of guitars and drums, as well as sweeping strings.
Rabins’ voice isn’t one for big, dramatic runs — her soft, pretty chants float on top of the music, fading into the songs rather than leading them. What this all means is that Girls in Trouble’s shtick isn’t dependent on a listener’s interest in the Torah to be likeable — without a lyrics sheet, one might not even know the song “Lemons” is about Potiphar’s love for Joseph, and how she presents her lover to her friends.
But this being The Jewish Chronicle, we do have some interest in the subject matter. And it doesn’t disappoint. Rabins digs deep on “Half You Half Me” to write about Torah themes and stories both esoteric and well-known, so that — if you have a thirst for Torah storytelling — listening carefully to the lyrics as well as the music becomes an integral part of experiencing the album.
The catchy, swirling song “DNA,” led by a string section, tells the tale of sisters Rachel and Leah. It’s a familiar story: Jacob loves Rachel, and works for seven years to earn her hand in marriage, but the sister’s father has other plans. At the wedding, it is actually Leah under the veil. The song is based on a Midrash that imagines Rachel and Jacob anticipating her father’s trick and planning to use a password at the wedding to confirm her identity. At the wedding, though, Rachel refuses to humiliate her sister Leah and gives her the password.
That’s a lot to pack into a five-minute song. When Rabins sings, “Sister, I am half you, half me. In between the molecules I feel it when you breathe,” the drama of the story comes to life — Rachel choosing her sister’s dignity over her own happiness.
“Half You Half Me” is a stormy, billowing and beautiful album, and a great companion to your Midrash study any day.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com.)