The Norwich singer-songwriter's second album sees her patented combination of acoustic folk and trip-hop-lite bolstered by a galaxy of middleweight guests, which unfortunately reveals the main problem with "Central Reservation": Orton's charming songs are unfortunately so fragile that they tend to get trampled by the efforts of her collaborators. So, you know Ben Watt is in the area when a thin, reedy Everything But The Girl synth whine cracks open "Stars All Seem To Weep" (and he still credits himself with 'abstract sounds' and 'beats', which in the dance genre is about as subtle as hanging a big sign around your neck that reads "I'm a dilettante, me"). The presence of David Roback, 50% of Mazzy Star in his day job, on "Devil Song" is obvious from the title alone, and Dr John's contribution of a barrelling, bluesy piano line to "Sweetest Decline" is not a great surprise.
Nevertheless, "Central Reservation" remains a thoroughly pleasant (in a complimentary, rather than damning-with-faint-praise sense) listen, and in places it's stunning. "Stolen Car", for example, is fabulous, blessed with one of Orton's strongest melodies and Ben Harper's rattling Weissenborn guitar threading through the mix like a rattling ghost. The two versions of the title track are almost as fine, and "Feel To Believe" displays just how good her muse can sound when left unadorned to its own devices. The production, by Nick Cave and Paradise Motel associate Victor Van Vugt, is astonishing too, the full widescreen experience, albeit stifled by a grotty, sibilant pressing. Being a useful improvement on her debut "Trailer Park", "Central Reservation" leaves you with hope for the future as long as the guest list gets trimmed.
BETH ORTON Daybreaker (Heavenly)
Beth Orton's third album is a disappointment. Where "Central Reservation" honed and sharpened the positive points of its predecessor, "Trailer Park", "Daybreaker" seems to dissipate and fritter away all that good work. A motley crew of talent - including Ryan Adams, Johnny Marr, Lone Swordsman Keith Tenniswood, Jeff Buckley's drummer Matt Johnson, legendary session percussionist Jim Keltner, The Chemical Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Everything But The Girl's Ben Watt - bring their star quality to bear on a collection of undernourished songs that seem in need of more fundamental corrective surgery. Much of "Daybreaker" is finicky and filigree, for the most part lacking memorable melody and arresting lyrics - when Beth sings "I slip inside the imagery" during "Paris Train" is it pure poetry or nonsense? And which is worse, the fact that it's so difficult to decide or the fact that it's so difficult to care? "Anywhere" starts with some attractive, sepia-toned strings, and its refined trombone part at least makes it sound different to much of the muchness here, but the aimless Chemical Brothers production on the title track only serves to remind how far Tom and Ed's stock has fallen since Orton first guested on their records.
The second side provides some respite, being sparser and far less busy. Nevertheless, the Emmylou Harris collaboration "God Song" is a pale shadow of former glories, and even the album's finest moment, the Ryan Adams-penned "This One's Gonna Bruise", still seems depressingly colourless. "Ted's Waltz" musters some kind of rolling drama, like stormclouds boiling up on the horizon, but it's soon dissipated by "Thinking About Tomorrow", and its clanging reference to "Falling into solid air", a reminder, as if any were needed, that John Martyn perfected this kind of ambient folk nigh on 30 years ago. Beth Orton has made some fine music in the past; hopefully "Daybreaker" is just a temporary blip.
BETH ORTON Comfort Of Strangers (EMI)
Beth Orton established herself as the mid-1990s electronica chanteuse du jour through guest appearances on Chemical Brothers and William Orbit albums, but too often her own solo work has been more interesting as an idea than in concrete execution. Her last long player, Daybreaker, found her wedged into a cul-de-sac of drab, colourless ambient folk.
Happily, Comfort Of Strangers instantly charms and disarms, quirky opener Worms promising something else entirely. Helmed and honed by producer/multi-instrumentalist/occasional co-writer Jim ORourke, the albums signature sound is the woody thump of percussion and the unvarnished twangle of acoustic guitars. The album feels warm, worn and homely; sonically theres a dearth of extreme treble that ages and matures it, bringing it closer to the late 1960s works of Nick Drake and Fairport Convention that it so frequently evokes. (And what would Joe Boyd have made of this material? His production work on R.E.M.s Fables Of The Reconstruction, all woodsmoke and claustrophobia, is another touchstone here.) Mr ORourke is clearly drawing on the same areas of his multi-faceted skillset employed for his mixing and refreshing duties on Judee Sills posthumous collection Dreams Come True; the shortwave squall of his Wilco work is nowhere to be found here.
14 sparse but infectious songs trample past in under 45 minutes: like the Eels live album reviewed elsewhere theres not an ounce of the unnecessary here. Rectify evokes the restless transcontinental propulsion of Van Morrisons So Quiet In Here; Shadow Of A Doubt, Safe In Your Arms and Heart Of Soul are gently modulated dramas. Shopping Trolley buries a chiming melody beneath a Keith Moon clatter mixed right up front, and Pieces Of Sky is ghostly, like an echo of a stain.
Comfort Of Strangers is arguably the first Beth Orton album that doesnt sound like the work of a lady who used to grab guest vocal spots on electronica albums; perhaps not coincidentally, its also her finest work yet.
THE MAGIC NUMBERS / BETH ORTON Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 13 September 2008
Something of a staggering miscalculation in the billing, to my mind, but there it was: Heavenly veteran Beth Orton supporting The Magic Numbers, a band whose career is a mere two albums old. The incentive was that Beth would be performing her debut, “Trailer Park”, in its entirety, and so it proved to be, just Beth and a multitalented instrumentalist fellow on violin, piano, guitar and mandolin. She’s clearly a graduate from the Paul Buchanan School For Reluctant Performers, although I haven’t yet heard the Blue Nile’s enigmatic frontman ascribe his nervousness to a last minute substitution of trainers for red shoes, or to having his brains sucked out through his boobs during breastfeeding, both excuses Orton gave for her perceived anxiety.
It’s probably also worth factoring in the inevitable trauma of playing certain songs live for the first time in a dozen years, but the rare moments when proceedings actually did career off the rails (an obscenity-splattered breakdown of “Don’t Need A Reason”, for example) only endeared her to the partisan audience even more. Nevertheless, it has to be said that the songs’ frailties were mercilessly exposed when heard in this relatively unvarnished form. You’d hardly connect them with the dappled folktronica of the album proper, being more the stuff of stereotypical Blue Nile support acts at times. Sorta inevitably, “She Cries Your Name” was one of the highlights, alongside Phil Spector cover “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” and the album’s long, languid closer “Galaxy Of Emptiness”. Unfortunately, a bit like “Trailer Park”, tonight’s showing demonstrated Beth’s greatness only sporadically.
The Magic Numbers’ fanbase were out in strength tonight, and this affable and garrulous band responded appropriately, filling their music with energy and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, to a non-believer, much of their set seemed lacking in variety. Having likened their mid-paced jangling to Cat Stevens fronting Doves covering Bread that image proved difficult for their performance to shift. The highlights were the brief slivers of inventive covers sewn into their own songs: a snippet from Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” here, a verse or two from Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” there, and a shaky but sincere duet with Beth on Fred Neil’s “Dolphins”, the latter possibly inspired by the version Tim Buckley recorded in this very venue forty years (2 months and 2 days) earlier. Perhaps the best example of their own material was something introduced as being their debut 7” single, a multi-part collision of melody and ambition that made their later regression into fan-pleasing formula all the more regrettable.
I have to say a word for the venue: more intimate than the previous night’s Royal Festival Hall experience, even those perched at the back had a splendid view of the stage, and the deep-buttoned leather seats seemed endearingly like a previous generation’s idea of space-age chic.
BETH ORTON / SAM AMIDON Glee Club, Cardiff 17 April 2011
As its name suggests, Cardiff’s Glee Club is a comedy club, and, perhaps perversely, also perfectly suited to an evening’s acoustic introspection. A wide, shallow 400-seat room, you’d be hard done by not to get an excellent view, and the acoustics are excellent, at least for this evening’s gentle fare.
Sam Amidon has brought a guitar, a banjo and a set of folksongs and murder ballads with him from Vermont. He offers some idiosyncratic observations on subjects including mountains and R Kelly’s answering machine, and rouses the attentive audience into some low-wattage community singing. At one point, forgetting the words to one of his own compositions, he encourages us to concentrate on the lovely melody instead of his desperate attempts to fill up the syllables. He’s certainly entertaining enough, without sowing a crazed craving to hear more.
Tonight Beth is also playing acoustically and, apart from a few songs on which she’s joined by Sam, unaccompanied. All credit to her, too, for touring in what looks to be a pretty advanced state of pregnancy: at one point she quips that she’ll get back to making records - her latest album, the wondrous “Comfort Of Strangers”, is already five years old – when she’s finished having children. She brings the endearing kookiness but almost none of the nervous jitters that characterised her performance of the “Trailer Park” album at Heavenly Records’ 20th anniversary bash on the South Bank a few years ago. Tonight she’s almost garrulous, holding forth on fishing and remodelling Cardiff Bay (“I’ve only been here two hours and I think I know what’s best!”).
She also plays some music, quite a lot of which is lovely. On record her songs often have the gentlest of burbling electronica backings, yet the likes of “Central Reservation”, “Stolen Car” and “She Cries Your Name” are substantial enough to be whittled down to one or two voices and acoustic guitars. There’s much from “Comfort Of Strangers”, slighter but more experimental works than the aforementioned, and a perhaps appropriate cover of The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child”. There are also a couple of new songs that are still in development, “Candles” and “Red Door”. The unexpected but inevitable highlight for me, though, given my proclivities, was a goosepimply cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen”, performed with Amidon.
The artist Beth most closely resembles to night for me, musically at least, is, of all people, John Martyn; they have the same sliding, slurred diction and altered folk music. Overall, then, a lovely evening’s entertainment, and surely nobody leaves empty hearted.