Before the age of downloading, I used to be all about the compilation. I first fell in love with the “Just Say” series from Sire Records. Their original collection, meant merely as a one-off sampler, was called Just Say Yes and it opened a lot of musical doors for me. I originally picked up the modestly priced CD for the remixes of Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” and Echo’s “Lips Like Sugar,” but ended up with great songs by James, the Smiths, the Mighty Lemon Drops, Throwing Muses, Aztec Camera and the Replacements. The CD was so popular that more followed and more recently, a box set called Just Say Sire. Since getting into those, I’d become an ardent fan of the compilation CD. I especially loved when it revolved around a particular concept, such as Closed on Account of Rabies, a CD devoted to the reading and singing of Edgar Allen Poe’s stories and poetry. Samplers are starting to become a thing of the past thanks to technology. When one can pick and choose, making their own playlists and CD’s, the artistry of the compilation CD seems to be passé. Not so, says Artangel and 4AD, who bring us Plague Songs, a collection of work more noted for its artistic merit and cultural relevance than for being marketable pop songs. Well, I say more power to them!
First of all, I suppose I should explain the plagues and what this album is really all about. The ten plagues of Egypt, as related in the book of Exodus, were plagues released by God in order to convince the Pharaoh to release the Israelite slaves. The final plague, incidentally, also gave the Black Angels the name of their album. This album essentially lays out ten songs to represent the ten plagues, in the same order as in the Bible, all with a different artistic bent. First up, taking on the plague of blood is British rapper Klashnekoff with, simply enough, “Blood.” Klashnekoff uses the Lord’s Prayer to emphasize his point of today’s world of violence and war. Think “Jesus Walks” a step closer to the apocalypse. “Relate the Tale” represents the plague of frogs as presented by King Creosote, a prolific Scottish singer / songwriter whose real name is Kenny Anderson. All of these ten songs were commissioned by Artangel to be performed as part of the Margate Exodus, a day of music, film and art based around the book of Exodus. The songs, I suppose, turned out so great, that they released them as a CD.
Stephen Merritt, a man who always seems to be caught in the middle of anything slightly avant-garde, takes on the plague of lice with, funnily enough, “The Meaning of Lice.” Merritt turns the concept on its head by presenting the material in an ’80s Iggy Pop meets the Thompson Twins fashion. Oh Stephen, who else would rhyme miscellaneous and subcutaneous? Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt bring us the plague of flies, introducing the quiet meditative piece with the sound of buzzing flies, what else? Laurie Anderson’s version of the plague of the death of livestock wraps up the first half. But some of the best songs appear in the second half of this compilation, starting with Cody ChesnuTT’s “Boils,” for the plague of the same name. ChesnuTT’s music, as always, combines several different cultures into one funky blend, and it’s a treat to hear anything he has to offer.
The surrealist group, the Tiger Lillies provide a slow, awkward falsetto to the story of the plague of hail. Then Imogen Heap comes along and saves the day for those of the pop mindset with an upbeat portrayal of the plague of locusts. I guess if Zach Braff decides to get all Biblical in his next movie, he can use this track without fear of compromising his usual style. The true highlight of the album is Scott Walker’s “Darkness,” representing the plague of the same name. It is, just like his last album, downright creepy. It’s as if Antony and Nosferatu got together, followed by a horde of call and response singing undead. Yikes! Weird, but absolutely memorable. The album is wrapped up by another strong performance, this one by Rufus Wainwright, called “Katonah,” representing the ‘death of the firstborn,’ which was avoided with the sacrificing of a lamb. This, eventually, was the inspiration for the Passover holiday.
I’ve recently gone through a crisis of trying to figure out how to combine art and a living. Luckily, a good friend convinced me that great art can only be made independently of money, and the twain should rarely meet. She was right, of course. I don’t think 4AD or Artangel had any illusions that Plague Songs would be a financially successful release, merely putting it out for the sake of having this amazing art heard. However, because business is business, and they can’t probably do this kind of thing all the time, I urge you to check out more stuff like this. If you’re one of those types that doesn’t like compilations, or if you’re the type that doesn’t like art for art’s sake, then a plague on both your houses! (C’mon, you had to know that was coming.)