When I first bought my copy of Beth Orton's Daybreaker CD, I couldn't figure out what about it was different from her earlier two. She worked closely with American country singers Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris, which gave a couple of the songs a country twang. But that wasn't the difference. She co-wrote a song with Johnny Marr of The Smiths, which added a little Brit-pop bounce. But that wasn't it either.
Then I noticed: The disc is missing the big "Heavenly" on its face. She has a new label. I worried that the missing angelic name on the label might mean less grace, less purity. But it's not true. This joint release with the Chemical Brothers' Astralwerks label is still a Heavenly product, it's just that the company name is in a smaller typeface.
Orton is still making the same music, and it's still graceful and pure. Her music has been stumping fans and critics since her first release in 1996, Trailer Park. We've all been feverishly making up compound descriptions as we recommend it to others. It's folk, but some of it has a pulsating electronic beat behind it. So, is it really folk, or is it folk-rock or neo-folk, or, as the wordsmiths at MTV dubbed it, folktronica?
The vast differences in the musicians she writes songs with also make it hard to classify Orton. She's the It Girl of the British dance music scene, collaborating with the Chemical Brothers, William Orbit and Ben Watt. And in the U.S., she lent her voice to the white rapper Princess Superstar's recent CD. And she's now hanging out with alt-country superstars. These contrasts add to her mystery. While it sounds as if she's baring her soul in her songs, she manages to keep from revealing too much. We're left to wonder: Is she the wounded woman she often sounds like, or the playful-looking woman skipping in the waves on her CD cover? When playing live, the pensive person behind the voice reveals her playful side. Onstage, she maintains a sense of fragility, but tells jokes. This summer in Central Park she told the kind of riddles found on Popsicle sticks between songs. Then she told her audience, in a childlike British voice, "We've all been shopping in New York. We've got new trousers."
On her new disc, Orton maintains her sense of mystery and sadness, sometimes expressing herself against a backdrop of quiet guitar-strumming, at other times with a hearty electronic beat or foot-stomping keyboard. The second song on the disc, "Concrete Sky," stands out the most at first listen. Co-written by Marr, it features Adams singing alongside Orton and playing guitar. It's got a rollicking, country-rock feel, and Ryan's dusty-sounding voice is a sweet match with Orton's.
The title track, "Daybreaker," showcases the techno half of Orton's compound songwriting talent. Mixed by the Chemical Brothers, the song sounds like a lighthearted companion to "Galaxy of Emptiness." She sings, "We're doin' fine now, yeah we do we don't feel sad or bad or blue and you know we ain't never defeated... all that is fine." As she sings this, several layers of rhythm and some sci-fi keyboard effects wash over the song. It could almost be a dance anthem. It's curious that the Astralwerks promotional CD that was packaged with Daybreaker included "Concrete Sky" instead of this song.
The best songs on the CD are the ones that mainly rely on Orton's voice. "Thinking About Tomorrow" and "Ted's Waltz" are trademark Orton: they're personal and confessional and sound bejeweled. "God Song," where she sings with Emmylou Harris and Adams, manages to pass on its heartache while making your head sway with the weeping guitar. Orton and Harris harmonize as they sing, "He's my man and I been doing him wrong. But I'm praying for the strength not to carry on."
Daybreaker, bears all the strengths and beauty of the earlier Orton CDs (which in addition to her debut, include 1998's Best Bit EP and 1999's Central Reservation), but it also shows some growth. Orton has been making friends in many different realms of the music industry and inviting them into her music. As a result, the songs are richer and warmer. It took me a little while to get used to hearing the many layers of instruments that back her on Daybreaker. I had been used to a starker, more intimate sound. But I put my faith in Orton and she doesn't disappoint. Even if the label no longer says so, her music still comes from a higher place.