Alison Cotton

Following up on her harrowing last album, The Portrait You Painted Of Me, stood as no easy task for Alison Cotton. In the wake of her years with The Left Outsides, The Eighteenth Day of May, and The Trimdon Grange Explosion, her solo works have been imbued with a sorrow that’s palpable, a weight that pulls on the listener like a generations-long yoke. For Engelchen, Cotton added further into that weight with a historical interpretation of the lives and work of Ida and Louise Cook. The English sisters sought to help Jewish artists smuggle their belongings out of Nazi Germany, turning furs and valuables into much needed cash for the journey to the UK and places West. The album opens plainly with that premise, a nearly 20-minute slip into the cycle called “We Were Smuggling People’s Lives.” The song drowns in a deluge of Cotton’s strings, somber and stately, while her voice calls across the ages, a beacon that flickers with candlelight’s hypnotic glow.

The wordless intonation continues through the second piece as well, less furrowed, but no less affecting. The title track surfaces through the darkness as the first to tell the tale of the “little angels.” The sisters spent years prior to their travails visiting conductors and singers throughout Europe, though mostly in Germany. Their steady rapport would come to form a convincing cover as they began to smuggle valuables over the Dutch border years later. Cotton imbues the album with the emotional weight and context of the sisters’ lives. “The Letter Burning” acts as a sobering centerpiece, a reflection on the fact that much of the correspondence related to their work has been lost, burned by Louise for reason’s unknown, but often suspected to be an act of remorse for those she could not help at all and those she could not help more. The song again sets Cotton’s strings against heart wrenching vocalizations, funereal in tone, fluttering though the speakers like crows carting souls beyond the veil.

As the sisters’ original impetus for travel was the music itself, Cotton has sought to replicate a bit of the aura of their infatuation, including an interpretation of “Crépsucule,” one of their favorite arias from Jules Massenet, as originally sung by one of the sisters’s favorite sopranos, Amelita Galli Cuci. Here, Cotton gives the song her own gossamer glow, and its easy to see how the Cook’s were entranced. While the album is hung with the sobriety of the sisters’ task, it is ultimately uplifting. Their dauntless spirit resides between the bow and strings. The crushing weight of the work radiates with an inner light. The album closes with Cotton’s voice hanging on the air in warning of history repeating itself and a tale of refuge lost, of trusts uncertain. Where are today’s little angels? The album’s themes of sacrifice and arts preservation still ring true as cultures are lost through cycles of atrocity. It’s an album detailing lost history, but a tale that’s not so unfamiliar some 80-90 years later.

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