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Beth Orton - Comfort of Strangers

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Artist: Beth Orton

Album: Comfort of Strangers

Label: Astralwerks

Review date: Mar. 26, 2006

Eight years ago Beth Orton came from an unlikely quarter – the Chemical Brothers’ camp – to bring a welcome sound. Despite the presence of contempo beats and electronics, the rich strings, acoustic strumming, unabashedly emotive singing, and heart-on-sleeve sentiments on Trailer Park harkened back to Sandy Denny and John Martyn’s best efforts from the ’70s. Two subsequent albums consolidated her audience, but to these ears they were disappointments, less ambitious production-wise and a bit melody-starved.

Comfort Of Strangers is the best thing Orton has recorded since her debut. Producer Jim O’Rourke contributed his distinctive recording, isolating each instrument in the mix and placing it with a cinematographer’s instinct for special relationships. He also played bass, a bit of guitar, and most of the (non-electronic) keyboards; Rob Berger of Tin Hat Trio added some accordion and piano. Drummer Tim Barnes’ contributions are key. On “Worms” and “Heartlandtruckstop” he’s as basic as Ringo; his subtle accents not only render the tempo shifts in “Rectify” coherent, they make the fast bits take flight. He rarely uses cymbals, which leaves a lot of sound room for Orton’s voice and guitar. She does most of the picking herself, plucking tight, memorable tunes that shadow the more dramatic contours drawn by her voice. There’s a hint of appealing graininess in her singing that I haven’t heard before, and more folk-soul decoration in her phrasing.

But music like this rises and falls on the songs themselves. Orton’s hooks take a while to reveal themselves, but they’re pretty sturdy. She delivers more solid melodies than anything since her first album. Her lyrical focus is mostly on confused but hopeful love; I’d tell you more, but the booklet reproduces the words in microscopic, nearly unreadable script, and I seem to have lost my magnifying glass. But the sound of her voice says more than enough.

By Bill Meyer

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