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Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure Music Album Reviews

Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a bucolic cult classic from 1983, one that taps into a centuries-old tradition of pastoralism in British culture.

The mid-’80s were a peculiar time for alternative music in the UK. Around 1983, the surging momentum of the post-punk era dissipated into a confused clutter of trends and revivals. People who’d begun their musical journey in roughly the same spot—the Sex Pistols, the Clash—were now making sounds unrelated to each other and a long distance from their starting point.
Even though it came out on the archetypal post-punk independent label Rough Trade, few records could have been further from the filth and fury of 1977 than the pastoral ambient music of Virginia Astley’s 1983 album From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. She had been a punk fellow traveler as a teenager in the late ’70s, going to rowdy gigs and playing in pubs herself as keyboardist in the new wave group Victims of Pleasure. By training and temperament, though, Astley did not fit the standard profile of a post-punk musician. That movement teemed with art-school students who approached music-making conceptually. Astley attended music college and arrived on the scene armed with craft and technique. She drew inspiration not from political theory but poetry and literature.
Still, as her post-punk contemporaries expanded their sound, Astley found her services in demand. She did the string arrangements on Siouxsie and the Banshees’ tempestuous single “Fireworks.” After working on an album track by the Scottish new wave band Skids, she collaborated with singer Richard Jobson on The Ballad of Etiquette, an album of poetry and spoken word set to music. Astley also formed a romantic and creative partnership with Skids bassist Russell Webb, with whom she would co-produce From Gardens Where We Feel Secure.

Before starting her solo career, Astley briefly belonged to Ravishing Beauties, an all-female trio of classically trained musicians whose tiny clutch of recordings includes a poignant setting of “Futility” by First World War poet Wilfred Owen. The allusion to early 20th-century English literature, along with the genteel quaintness of the expression “ravishing beauties”—imagine it uttered in debonair Downton Abbey tones—set the stage for Astley’s first recordings: not so much a case of “like punk never happened” as “like rock never happened”.

Judging by her speaking voice, which can be heard on a 1983 interview for Greenwich Sound Radio, Astley was not particularly posh. But her singing tones are as demure and pure as the choir soloist at an all-girls boarding school. Even her name seemed to hail from another time, evoking (via Virginia Woolf) the Bloomsbury Group, or perhaps a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel (his Brideshead Revisited, adapted for TV in 1981, had plunged half the nation into nostalgia for a lost aristocratic England). There’s even a phonetic echo of Laura Ashley, the popular clothing designer whose floral patterns and natural fabrics harked back to the country-house world of the 19th century. Astley herself favored Fair Isle sweaters and flowing, loose-fit garments. Appearing on the cover of NME in autumn 1983, clasping a bunch of wildflowers and with a scarf masking her face, Astley looked like a cross between a botanist and a bandit.

Although no one else on the UK indie scene at that time made a record as beguilingly bucolic as Gardens, Astley had company in other ways. She fit into a mini-phenomenon I call “wide-brimmed hat music.” Astley sported one herself on the cover of her 1986 album Hope in a Darkened Heart. In the mid-’80s, the independent charts and music papers were full of hat-wearing groups like the Woodentops and Martin Stephenson and the Daintees. The headgear had nothing to with dashingly masculine hats like those worn by the Clash. These were more like the hat a pale English girl would wear to ward off freckles while being punted along the lazy rivers of Oxford or Cambridge.

Seven years on from punk, the British rock scene’s obsession with street credibility suddenly evaporated. For the first time since Kevin Ayers in the early ’70s, a spate of UK performers no longer hid their well-spoken accents by adopting a downwardly mobile drone. Sonically, too, there was a kind of rebellion against rebellion, with artists like Everything But the Girl, Vic Godard, Weekend, and the Style Council embracing light music and middle-of-the-road sounds: Cole Porter, Astrud Gilberto, French chansonniers. In an echo of the proggy early ’70s, another moment when rock grew comfortable with being middle-class, non-rock instruments like strings and woodwinds became chic accoutrements. Kate St. John, formerly one of Ravishing Beauties, played oboe and cor anglais in the Dream Academy, whose trans-Atlantic smash “Life in a Northern Town” became the wide-brimmed moment’s mainstream breakthrough.

Astley’s 1982 debut EP Love’s a Lonely Place to Be includes songs with lyrics, but there is a foretaste of Gardens’ almost completely instrumental direction in the form of “It’s Too Hot to Sleep” and “A Summer Long Since Passed,” both of which would reappear on the album. The EP’s title track’s chirruping vocal riff uncannily anticipates Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”; the inspiration probably came from Laurie Anderson’s voice-pulse on “O Superman” or the fluttery “systems music” of composer Michael Nyman. Both were among the artists that Astley played on the 1983 radio show, which took place while Gardens was still a work-in-progress. She also mentioned Brian Eno as an admired ancestor. Astley’s account of what she’s trying to do with the album is very close to Eno’s definition of ambient as music that must be as ignorable as it is interesting: “Whoever’s listening could lie down and put it on, and not really listen to it that much,” Astley suggested during the radio chat. “Just have it on in the background.”

Featuring nature sounds recorded in and around the village of Moulsford-on-Thames, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure taps into a centuries-old tradition of rhapsodic pastoralism in British culture. Both the countryside and the household garden figure as places where Nature’s wild beauty is domesticated and made into a safe space for dream and play, reverie and revelry. Increasingly it was the ever-expanding city that came to seem like dangerous wilderness, a place whose depravity and deprivation bred both vice and radicalism. Illness and unrest alike could be inoculated, urban planners hoped, by the creation of public parks. Inspired by similar social anxieties, the garden city movement of the early 20th century created new towns that incorporated large areas of greenery, while another social initiative provided allotments of land for nominal rental fees so that ordinary townsfolk could grow their own produce and recover their inner peasant.

Gardens recreates a single summer day from dawn to dusk: The first side of the original vinyl covers the morning, while the second is dedicated to the afternoon. “I was just trying to capture that feeling you get on one of the first really hot days of summer,” Astley told NME later in 1983. “The timeless feel of the beginning of summer.” “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming” starts with the bright dawn chatter of birdsong, gradually interlacing piano, flute, and acoustic guitar. Although there are no drums, the track is more melodically sprightly than what we tend to consider “ambient” these days. But the repetitiousness of the patterns and the absence of gaps between tracks create a feeling of suspension from time.

Like a cinematic dissolve, the elegiac title “A Summer Long Since Past” establishes the idyll faraway in time, associating it with childhood or even the pre-industrial past. Astley’s wordless “la-la-la” vocal is mixed further back than on the EP version: It seems to reach your ear across distance, like a girl singing happily to herself while walking down the road on the other side of your garden wall. A descending piano figure gently cascades in a haze of sustain-pedal. On the title track, church bells peal in a continuous loop, suggesting that these are not chimes marking the hours of an ordinary day but an exceptional cause for communal rejoicing: a Royal Wedding, the coming of peace at the close of World War II.

The back cover of the 2003 CD reissue of Gardens features a photograph of a thatched cottage and a small, fair-haired girl who looks like Astley and which most likely stems from a brief period in her otherwise suburban childhood when she lived in the countryside. Like the hauntology of Boards of Canada and the Ghost Box label, Astley’s music taps into that zone where idyllic personal memory bleeds into collective nostalgia: mythic notions of England as Arcadia.

The atmosphere of a halcyon long-lost summer intensifies on the “Afternoon” side of the album. The rusty squeak of a gate between fields forms an irritable loop through “Out on the Lawn I Lie in Bed,” contrasting tartly with pretty xylophone chimes and piano trills in the higher octaves like rippling water rushing over rocks. “Too Bright for Peacocks” is an intriguing title, leaving you to wonder whether it’s the birds’ plumage that’s so radiant in the mid-afternoon sun it makes you squint, or if it’s the peacocks themselves who need shades. Staccato piano thrumming like rays pounding on your back, the track captures that heat-baked peak of the day when a wide-brimmed hat would really come in handy.

Despite the largely acoustic palette, subtle touches of studio trickery surface every so often, most notably on “When the Fields Were on Fire,” where a high-pitched drone on loan from Nurse With Wound’s Soliloquy for Lilith wavers throughout the track. Living up to the title, the piece conjures that golden hour when a certain slant of dying sunshine sets the wheatfields eerily aglow. Nominally identified as “afternoon,” “It’s Too Hot to Sleep” really belongs to the night, as the tu-whit tu-whoo of a tawny owl signals. The title flashes me back to the English ’80s—when air conditioning was virtually unknown in the UK—but the piece itself doesn’t evoke restless limbs tangled in a single sweat-soaked sheet but rather blissful drowsiness.

In June 1983, as Astley finished work on Gardens, Margaret Thatcher won reelection: a historic landslide buoyed by the jingoistic swagger that followed the nation’s victory in the Falklands War, and an electoral triumph achieved despite the mass unemployment and social discord caused by her conservative economic policies. Nine months later, Thatcher went to war again, not with foes overseas but with the “enemy within”—striking miners, the toughest and most defiant organization within what remained of Britain’s industrial proletariat. During Thatcher’s rule, the country’s alternative musicians hurled out protest songs: Crass’ “How Does It Feel? (to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)?,”  Robert Wyatt’s oblique and melancholy “Shipbuilding,” Test Dept’s collaboration with a Welsh miners’ choir.

It would be a stretch to describe Astley’s album as a response to or even a commentary on its times. But the summertime idyll so lovingly recreated is shadowed by the political crises of the early ’80s, not least because the notion of England as a green and pleasant land is entangled with the nostalgic conservatism of the Thatcher era. Both the album title and “Out on the Lawn I Lie in Bed” come from W.H. Auden’s 1933 poem “A Summer Night,” a mystical vision of companionship and erotic tenderness set in a country garden in the Malvern Hills. But shadows of the coming conflict in Europe pass across Auden’s poem, as well as a sense of the privilege that supports such comfortable seclusion: “Nor ask what doubtful act allows/Our freedom in this English house/Our picnics in the sun.” It’s not a huge leap to connect that guilty awareness with the imperial flashback of summer 1982, when Great Britain flexed its naval might in the South Atlantic. Could it be that the album’s overt subject, pastoral peace, carries a pacifist subtext?

Support for such a reading comes from the EP that preceded Gardens, 1982’s A Bao A Qu, run through with themes of untimely mortality and anti-war sentiment. There are borrowings from the German poet Friedrich Rückert’s Kindertotenlieder (poems inspired by the death of children), W. B. Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” and Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Consider also the Ravishing Beauties’ interpretation of Wilfred Owen’s bitter poem about slain young soldiers, with its references to “the kind old sun” and “fatuous sunbeams.” While the British people basked in an unexpected burst of hot weather in early June 1982, their young men were slaughtering and being slaughtered at Bluff Cove on East Falkland.

From Gardens Where We Feel Secure came out just over a year later, via an imprint through Rough Trade especially established for its release. The sub-label’s name, Happy Valley, is probably a reference to Samuel Johnson’s novel Rasselas, which contains an ambivalent portrait of a rustic idyll. It’s music that lends a fragrant tint to the home atmosphere, defusing stress as it infuses the living space. Particularly in these restricted times, Gardens works as a surrogate for a day trip to the country. But just like in Astley’s ’80s, the haven it recreates remains surrounded on all sides by turmoil and trouble.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure Music Album Reviews Virginia Astley - From Gardens Where We Feel Secure Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Sunday, January 10, 2021 Rating: 5

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