A classically trained pianist and flautist less known for her own work than for the illustrious company she keeps, Astley has played sessions for Siouxsie and the Banshees, Richard Jobson and Troy Tate, among others. Her father, Ted Astley, is an accomplished composer best known for television themes; her brother is artist/producer Jon Astley; her brother-in-law is Pete Townshend. (She played piano on his “Slit Skirts.”) Her late-’70s band, the three-woman Ravishing Beauties, included Nicky Holland, later known for her work with Tears for Fears and Ryuichi Sakamoto. However, Astley’s own pastoral and tranquil records are markedly different from those of family and friends.
Evoking images of summer afternoons in the countryside, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure is, superficially at least, soothing sonic wallpaper. Except for a few syllables, it’s entirely instrumental, consisting basically of piano, flute, clarinet and tape loops. Upon closer scrutiny, the tapes (animal sounds, church bells, etc.) build subliminal tension; there’s more to Ms. Astley than initially meets the ear.
Promise Nothing is a compilation, including cuts from Gardens and various singles. The orchestration on the earlier work is thicker — synthesizers, sax and percussion place the material more in the rock realm — but her choir-boy soprano keeps things from getting too raucous. Standouts: the irresistible “Love’s a Lonely Place to Be” and “Arctic Death,” as haunting as any John Cale effort. An impressive record from an intriguing artist.
In 1985, Astley signed to Elektra in the United Kingdom and released a pair of singles, neither of which broke any new musical ground for her. Hope in a Darkened Heart, her US debut, was mostly produced by Sakamoto, who adds more synths and drum machines. David Sylvian sings on the opening “Some Small Hope.” While it’s still very pretty, there’s more substance, as well. The angry lyrics by this single mother (the baby’s father left Astley during her pregnancy) are made even more effective by the charm of her voice and the delicacy of the music. I wouldn’t want to be the guy to whom “A Father” or “So Like Dorian” are directed. Remixes of earlier tracks, including “Love’s a Lonely Place to Be,” round out Side Two.
She may never be prolific or commercially popular, but Virginia Astley is one of the most unique talents around these days.