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Show and CD review: Girls in Trouble, Half You and Half Me; and live at The Woods, Portland, OR

First Fruits Festival
Girls In Trouble
River Empires
Like A Villain
at The Woods, Portland, OR
June 8, 2011

Sponsored by recently deceased philanthropist Harold Schnitzer of the Schnitzer Family’s Program in Judaic Studies at Portland State University and scheduled for the second night of Shavuoth, the Jewish Pentecost holiday blessing of the spring harvest and honoring the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the strange if acoustically splendid venue of The Woods, a one-time funeral parlor repurposed as an eclectic music listening room hosted an evening of very lively song regarding girls in trouble or women from the earthy, salty and transcendental parchment scrolls of the bible.

Girls In Trouble is also the name of the band led by songwriter Alicia Jo Rabins, born twenty-something years ago downstream and up Marquam Hill from The Woods at Oregon Health Sciences University, aka the venerable OHSU, where her parents worked. The First Fruits Festival featured three musical acts and one between-sets PSU professor, namely Loren Spielman, leading a crammed Green Room in Talmudic exegesis of the Shavuoth holiday, one of the three pilgrimage holidays that in biblical temple times drew the far flung tribes of Israel to Jerusalem. Alicia Jo Rabins led her Girls In Trouble band by picking, plucking or bowing her violin, strumming acoustic guitar and singing her portraiture emphasizing the often overlooked interior dimensions and lives of a cohort of biblical heroines and bit players.

“Tell Me” opened the set, giving voice to Serakh Bat Asher, a granddaughter of patriarch Jacob, cited in Genesis, rare enough for a granddaughter and credited in midrash (rabbinical lore) with informing the grieving father of Joseph that his favored son was alive and well living in Egypt. Serakh reappears some 400 years later in Numbers where her name is listed among the Israelites escaping Egypt. Midrash again fills in scriptural gaps by relating that it was Serakh who alerted Moses where Joseph’s bones were entombed beneath the Nile River for return of his remains to Canaan with the exodus. Girls In Trouble followed this elliptical opener of the immortal Serakh with an emotionally devastating “Snow/Scorpions and Spiders” telling Moses’ sister Miriam’s story of saving her brother, contracting leprosy and being temporarily exiled from her family, people and God from her own forsaken perspective.

My mother named me bitter
Although as a child I was so kind
to my brother

Scorpions, spiders and snow-flaked skin appear to the accompaniment of fairy tale-ish glockenspiel played in one-handed style by guitarist Elaina Morgan. Those tinkling notes feel way too frivolous for the portent of this narrative.

If your God should turn from you
What do you turn to?
Still, I don’t regret a minute
I don’t regret an hour
I spent on top of the mountain
And if your Father should spit in your face
Wouldn’t you leave that place?
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go?

The rhythm section of sometime co-writer Aaron Hartman on bass and David Freeman on drums provided a rotating pocket of tempos to suit Rabins’ settings. Steely-yet-delicate electric guitarist Elaina Morgan doubled on one-armed glockenspiel and harmonized especially well on the bluegrass-inflected “Rubies (More than rubies\More than pearls)” based on the idealization of the Sabbath wife, or “Esheth Hayyil” from Proverbs. How appropriate to appropriate a traditional mountain fiddle tune for such verities and balderdash. The glockenspiel, however, has become the Portlandia sonic equivalent of the bird logo added everywhere as a secret hipster handshake. It has overstayed its welcome and must move on.

A new song reappraising the Mother of Jewish Prayer, another biblical heroine too often given short shrift, is Hannah. As Rabins explained, many of her song ideas were suggested by teachers, and Hannah made her way into the Girls In Trouble repertoire by way of Rabbi Ellen Lipman of a Park Slope, Brooklyn synagogue in the neighborhood where the band now resides. Rabins described the symmetry of Girls In Trouble’s current tour, noting that it commenced in San Francisco on the last night of Passover and ended this night in her hometown of Portland—seven weeks nearly to the day specified in Leviticus (23:15-16) for the celebration of Shavuoth, or the First Fruits Festival.

—Mitch Ritter (Beaverton, OR)

Girls in Trouble
Half You and Half Me
[Jdub Records (2011)]

Girls in Trouble follow up their “bad girls of the Bible” debut (2009, self-titled) with a collection of songs that draws from all over the Abrahamic spectrum, even dipping into the Quran for “Lemons.” The backstory gimmick might provide inspiration for the band’s material, but it’s Alicia Jo Rabin’s lyricism and melodic sense that carries the day.

The songs here sound mostly like American folk rock, with “Rubies” (an immediate favorite of mine since I first heard them play it in early 2010) being the most directly descended from the American folk music Rabins played in her pre-GIT years.

But some songs, like “Oh General” and the closer “Waltz for a Beheading” are tinged with Eastern European, Klezmer, and Middle Eastern influence. Rabins’ violin is the primary melody instrument throughout, but the band has turned the guitars up a little more for this record, bringing a more modern sound to their work.

Because the band tours as a three-piece, reproducing the layered strings on the record would be a challenge, but Rabins carries around a looper pedal. “Tell Me” most closely duplicates this bit of the band’s arsenal, starting out with simply a plucked figure on the violin and Rabin’s words:

Tell me what you’re looking for
I will show you what you have
The pearl inside the ice there of your heart
I’ve seen the bones rise from the river
I’ve watched them shining in the dark

then adding bowed parts and more vocals as the song marches on. But this dark lyrical imagery and source material is handled with profound empathy and thus becomes something deeply moving. Which is something that can be said about the band’s oeuvre.

—Jon Patton (Baltimore, MD)

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One comment on “Show and CD review: Girls in Trouble, Half You and Half Me; and live at The Woods, Portland, OR

  1. Alicia was unbelievable that night. I’m hoping we might be able to host her again next year, along with a few more local musicians!

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