As a unifying theme for a compilation album, the ten plagues that God brings down on the Egyptians in the book of Exodus is a left-field, difficult choice. The focus seems more fitting for a cinematic endeavor; one immediately thinks of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s set of short films based on the Ten Commandments. Luckily, 4AD assembled an appropriately theatrical and esoteric cast of artists to carry out the task: Musically, it doesn’t often get more apocalyptic and haunting than the work of Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, and Scott Walker.
The contributions from those three are among the best of the ten songs here, especially Walker’s. “Darkness” consists of low-voiced, mumbly Walker doing call and response with what sounds to be a shrieking, avenging Greek chorus. Like Orff’s famous “O Fortuna,” used in many a movie, the song is hair-raising. Eno is joined by Robert Wyatt on the buzzing “Flies.” And Anderson’s “The Fifth Plague” is orchestral, ominous and whispery.
Other good turns are put in by Stephin Merritt, Cody Chesnutt and Rufus Wainwright. Merritt is his usual witty, irreverent self on “The Meaning of Lace.” The song is Magnetic Fields-esque glitchy indie-techno, with Merritt cooing, “Lice, lice in paradise” and later rhyming “fleas” with “STDs.” Chesnutt’s “Boils” is big, brash and brassy. Chesnutt relates the tale of Moses facing of with the Pharaoh, as the band occasionally stops playing to chime in with a shout of the song’s title. And Wainwright’s “Katonah” is a bluesy tale of lost life.
None of the rest of the tunes is a complete waste of time. Klashnekoff’s “Blood” is grimy God rap. And King Creosote, the Tiger Lillies and Imogen Heap handle the plagues of frogs, hail and locusts respectively. All in all, this is a nice, mature, thoughtful counterpoint to that last crappy O.C. mix.
Plague Songs Web site: http://4ad.com/plaguesongs