Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.

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February 25, 2010

25-2-10 Acousticocteaux

Adlestrop

Yes.  I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform. What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas

I took a holiday in the late 80’s to visit some friends who had a dairy farm in central France, near a tiny town called Herisson (‘Hedgehog’), aiming for some air, quiet and the prospect of some brainless physical labouring. It worked in all three respects and fulfilled its prospect of a memorable mental snapshot album. God gave us memory so we might have roses in December.

At that time I had a maroon plastic Walkman for company and limited rucksack pocket space for tapes. The two I played repeatedly were the Jill Gomez/ Vernon Handley version of Canteloube’s Songs Of The Auvergne and a home-taped Cocteau Twins duo of Victorialand and Blue Bell Knoll.  I can’t even remember if there were others; these two seemed perfect throughout and overlaying their soundtrack on the experience was a good way of retrieving it to this day.

One of my tasks was to clear out a slurry-drain from the cowshed to a corner of a foreign field. That involved shovelling leaf-debris, compacted cowshit and soil from a few metres of ditch at a time, working back toward the shed and then breaking the dam of undug stuff to let gallons of pungent slurry flood into the cleared stretch.

I had one of my ‘Wow, Me Here Now!’ moments one early morning, resting on my shovel, thigh-deep in ditch, looking out over miles of dew-silvered fields and forested hills and valleys receding in the kind of ariel perspective you see in landscape painting, paler and paler into near-monochrome graphite blue, to the soundtrack of ‘Tchut! Tchut!’ from the Songs tape. I was making my road-movie.

In a space between tracks I stopped the tape and dropped the earphones round my neck, thinking that I was doing as Joyce Grenfell’s Women’s Institute Crafts-speaker claimed when making ‘useful and acceptable gifts from beech-nut husks… taking Nature’s gifts and impwoving upon them’.

The sound, more a sensation, of miles and cubic miles of still air under a clear sky makes all incidental sound into Debussy’s description of music : silence interrupted. A farm dog barks somewhere, cattle low (you’re reminded what a good verb that is), crows sound like themselves and all around the air is beaded with misc. birdsong.

I thought about that final verse of Adlestrop as I sat in the damp grass on the edge of the ditch and settled my mind from Be Here Now to Be Now, to Be. I find that aiming for transcendence or bliss makes my mind ambitious. You can’t ‘do’ Be [yes yes, I know Frank Sinatra could do-be do-be do]. I can settle in the right setting to be perfectly content, which really amounts to the same thing. Right at home on this planet, thank you very much.

The Cocteau Twins got under my skin the very first time I heard them: Hazel, on a John Peel show in 1982. Wax And Wane followed soon after and I was smitten – bought the 12” Lullabies EP and the Garlands album. 23 Envelope, the graphics wing of the 4AD label had got just the right off-kilter bleakness and fragility of the Cocteaux’ sound. No-one sounded quite like them, though many have since tried to catch that wall of mangled guitar-tone and battle-drum rhythm. No-one but no-one approaches the sound of Elizabeth Fraser’s voice cooing and yelling, feral and fragile. That first album was scary and cold in a way I’d only encountered in Ligeti’s choral pieces and Penderecki’s Dies Irae.

I kept in touch through their drip-feed of EP’s and listened as their sound grew more lush in Head Over Heels. The Treasure and Victorialand albums could be regarded as a double; they could be soundtrack to a movie of Gormenghast, spacey, fragile arrangements that if not strictly acoustic had that air about them; music for isolated castle vaults and chambers.

On my holiday, the vocals of Jill Gomez and Liz Fraser seemed to call out to each other between The Songs and Victorialand. Blue Bell Knoll was another thing altogether.

By the time BBK was released I’d taken to looking out for news of each new release and made bus-trips into town to snatch them up and bring them home as they arrived in the shops if possible, so I put needle to vinyl sound unheard and the first, title track burst over me in rolling wave of heroic optimism. It’s a joyous affair and if I had to choose a favourite Cocteaux album that would have to be it.

If I had to choose a favourite track Blue Bell Knoll could be the one, but I still carry a torch for ‘Those Eyes, That Mouth’ on the Love’s Easy Tears EP. My copy turned out to be a slightly dodgy hissy disc so I looked forward to it turning up on cd sometime and it finally surfaced on the retrospective Lullabies To Violaine Vol.1. I think of it as the voice of Edith Piaf in heaven. Bliss.

There have been times in my life when I’ve been so low that I didn’t want to play music I love for fear that the time and the music might forever be bound together. I’m happy that I have a choice of three albums that take me back to a sunlit French panorama viewed from a grandstand seat on the edge of a slurry ditch.

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