Weird at My School: Music for Gardens

[photo source]

By DJ El Toro

This weekend, my partner asked my opinion about some decisions concerning flora for the garden in front of our home. I balked. My thumbs are barely opposable; asking them to be green would be too much. “I don’t pick plants,” I quipped. “But if you need help picking music for plants, I’m your guy.”

Of course, after that wisecrack, my brain starting whirring. What sort of selections would compliment our little patch of greenery? Names of songs, albums, and artists began to flood my brain: “Gardening at Night” by R.E.M., “Garden in the Sky” by Martha and the Muffins (it always comes back to M+M with me…), “In the Garden” by Adam Goldstone, John Foxx’s swoon-worthy 1981 solo album The Garden. What about the Skinny Puppy side project Tear Garden? Probably not a good idea. Playing something Skinny Puppy-related to a crop of budding plants just seems like the opening for Little Shop of Horrors 2.

Then I thought of it: From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, the 1983 full-length by Virginia Astley. Rock listeners might, maybe, know Astley as Pete Townshend’s sister-in-law (she played tickled the ivories on All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes), but her own style owed more to pirouettes, not windmills. While she made a few records with vocals (including “Some Small Hope,” a duet with David Sylvian), those discs tended to pair bucolic arrangements with biting lyrics. New age with a bad attitude, as it were.

Gardens…, on the other hand, is a pastoral masterpiece of eleven instrumentals. No frills, just piano, a few woodwinds, a discrete tape loops. And not Cabaret Voltaire-style loops, either. (Although, oddly enough, both artists appear on the 1985 Some Bizarre comp If You Can’t Please Yourself, You Can’t Please Your Soul.) The succinct, curlicue credits say it all, with samples cited including lambs, a creaking swing gate, an owl, church bells, and “rowing on the river.”

Listening to Gardens… (which was reissued on CD by Rough Trade a couple years back) while my beau plunked down his new euphorbia and coleus plants, it was difficult to tell where Astley’s compositions ended and the bird chirps and gentle breezes filling the spring air outside began. And isn’t that how is should be? Gardens probably don’t need a DJ anymore than nightclubs need ferns.

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.

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