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Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007 07:04 am

Limited by the source material

A merciful god would have quit with frogs and locusts

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Various Artists - Plague Songs (4AD)
Untitled Document The Book of Exodus isn’t one of God’s finer moments. From the moment he first appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush, it’s obvious that Mr. I-Am-That-I-Am has a thing for cheap theatrics. When his staff-into-serpent party trick falls flat, he makes with the real razzle-dazzle. Rivers turn to blood. Frogs, lice, and flies descend. Innocent farm animals keel over. Then come the boils, the fiery hailstones, the locusts, and the darkness. Finally all the Egyptians’ firstborn children die (along with their firstborn livestock, which apparently come back to life briefly so that God can have the satisfaction of killing them again). With his typical genocidal genius, God launches this shock-and-awe attack solely against the Egyptians, leaving his chosen people conspicuously unscathed. Frankly, the whole story stinks of a setup. Granted, the Pharaoh was a homicidal, slave-driving jerk who wouldn’t let the poor Israelites do their thing in the desert, but why must God, who’s supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient, wreak so much collateral damage? Couldn’t he free the Jews by — oh, I dunno — simply offing the Pharaoh or turning him into a pillar of salt? And why did he harden the Pharaoh’s heart beforehand? Is it possible that he already knew that the Pharaoh was going to cave before the last act of this grisly puppet show? Well, duh. Look up “omniscient.” The only explanation that makes any sense (and no, “He works in mysterious ways” won’t fly anymore) is that God, much like his bro Mel Gibson, gets off on gore. Plague Songs, a new compilation commissioned by the British arts council Artangel, consists of 10 original songs, one for each plague. Although it doesn’t solve any of the aforementioned riddles, the CD does manage to turn its grandiose conceit into a mildly amusing 40 minutes’ worth of entertainment. There are definitely some duds, though, and the decision to arrange the songs chronologically, however appealing from a high-concept perspective it might have been, is a huge mistake from an aesthetic one. For starters, it means that the disc begins not with a bang but a whimper. “Blood,” by the justifiably obscure Klashnekoff, might be an attempt to equate the first plague with contemporary urban violence, but the London rapper’s aversion to consonants makes it impossible to tell, and his lame beats make it impossible to care. Almost as wretched is Imogen Heap’s sulky dance-pop disaster “Glittering Clouds,” which is supposed to be about locusts but might just as easily be about some minor rave mishap — a misplaced glowstick, perhaps, or some tainted ecstasy. Fortunately, not all of Plague Songs is as relentlessly awful as its subject matter. Scottish folk-popper King Creosote delivers “Relate the Tale,” his poignant, if melodically challenged, interpretation of the second plague from a frog’s viewpoint: “Although I prayed for company a hundred thousand times, I did not expect my prayers to be answered all on the same day.” Still more clever is Stephin Merritt’s “The Meaning of Lice,” a gimlet-eyed disco ditty with a burbling backbeat and the unforgettable couplet “Fleas, fleas, STDs/All of Egypt on her knees.” Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt turn in a rich and buzzy, disorientingly lovely synth hymn (“Flies”), and British eccentric Scott Walker contributes a genuinely frightening chamber-gospel cut (“Darkness”). The last track, Rufus Wainwright’s “Katonah,” is predictably beautiful, a sleepy art-school blues stippled with female harmonies and piano frills that doesn’t have much to do with the final plague; it’s actually about the singer’s dead cousin from Westchester. But, given the vexatious source material and its inexplicable sadist of a hero, maybe such liberties are all for the better. To borrow another line from Merritt, “Religion ain’t philosophy.”

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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