Beth Orton's latest disc, Comfort of Strangers, has gotten lukewarm reviews
from critics disappointed by the missing electronic beats and electric
guitar that won them over on Orton's first recordings. True, she showed up in
the embrace of William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers a decade ago, and
dazzled listeners and critics with her blend of trip-hop and folky
singer/songwriter stylings. But that sound is everywhere now. And, as it
is everywhere now, it's easy to compare Orton to Dido and others who
came along a little later and a few layers lighter. If you're in a hurry.
This time around Orton consciously chose to step back to her roots.
According to Astralwerks' Web site, she made a decision to record these
songs with a stripped-down sound and very few overdubs. And instead of
bringing in a posse of guest musicians, Orton worked with only percussionist
Tim Barnes, and Jim O'Rourke playing and producing; he's a sort of one-man posse
having produced and played with such bands as Wilco and Sonic Youth (of which
he is a member), and
even put out a small library of solo work.
The results are stellar: The songs are subtle and powerful, full of pain
and humor. It's a fantasy disc for a certain kind of girl. It
encompasses many moods, and the disc's cover art is full of flowery
doodles and photos of Orton looking stylish and sexy, in a lazy,
uncontrived sort of way.
Perhaps because of the lyrics, or perhaps because of the minimal
production, Orton sounds lonelier here than she's ever sounded before.
The title track approaches the swooning heights of earlier songs like
"Sweetest Decline" and "Pass in Time," with its feathery drumbeat,
plucked guitar and quivering organ. It's catchy and bittersweet, but
ultimately feels a bit restrained. "Feral Children" also calls to mind
"Pass in Time," a song I once read Orton wrote after her mother's death.
Orton's voice is nearly lifeless at the song's start, recalling a moment
sitting on a porch, watching "every constellation she might navigate
again" and getting "baptized by the rain and the euphoria of pain." Her
voice eventually opens up, and another guitar and a piano come in to
share the pain. The song is aching and elegiac.
On the opening track, "Worms," Orton delivers a terse, gunfire rebuke to
a lover as he tries to skulk away. She lists the weaknesses of certain
creatures: Worms haven't the balls to dance; chickens have a wishbone
where their backbones should be. Then she bitingly points to women's
alleged weakness, saying, "And now I'm your apple-eating heathen and
your rib-stealing Eve." It sounds a lot like Fiona Apple's wounded-girl
rap, which also tends to be full of mythological and biblical
references. It's not often that Orton sounds like one of her
contemporaries, and I feel guilty making the comparison. Even the end of
the song is reminiscent of Apple: Orton's voice fades out in resignation
as she spits out the last line, "I look for the magic but you got away
with it, that's all."
Among the disc's bright spots is "Conceived," driven by Barnes's
almost-disco drum beat and a rich mix of strings. A sprightly piano
perks up the more melancholy violin, as Orton sings, "Some of the time
the future comes right round to haunt me/ Some of the time the future
comes round/ Just to see that all is as it could be." When the dulcimer
comes in, it makes me want to put on something gauzy and skip around in
soft focus. "Shopping Trolley" has a big, strong beat (as compared to
other tracks on the disc) and Orton sounds practically jubilant as she
sings, "I think I'm gonna cry/ But I'm gonna laugh about it all in time."
Orton was wise to pare back her sound. Her last disc had a little too
much jangly Nashville flavor, and the remixes that came out recently
also drowned out the her in there. Her songwriting and her voice, a
voice that sneers at you, flirts with you and sometimes breaks your
heart, can shine here. All the embellishment, that's just the comfort of