Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Beth Orton - Comfort of Strangers

British singer/songwriter Beth Orton is already 10 years removed from her acclaimed debut Trailer Park, a record that somehow successfully blended folk with shades of electronica. Her CD Comfort of Strangers might not be as raw or experimental as that debut, but it is strong evidence that she’s hitting her stride as a songwriter and recording artist.

And then there’s that voice. She doesn’t have knock-your-socks-off power like Janis Joplin or Joss Stone, but she’s got a great and distinctive voice. It’s smooth yet smokey, and seems capable of sounding both warm and cool, not unlike a thermos.

The album kicks off with “Worms,” a sort of Tori Amos-meets-Fiona Apple vibe, as she admits “And now I’m your apple-eating heathen, any old rib-stealing Eve.” From there, the album flows effortlessly as Orton’s quality songwriting meshes with expert production from Jim O’Rourke, best known for his work with Sonic Youth, Wilco, and Stereolab.

While “Rectify” bounces along like a classic Paul Simon tune, “Heartland Truckstop” opens with an intro riff reminiscent of Moondance-era Van Morrison. The song ends with the line “Confidentially speaking all is as it seems.” Her phrasing, and her choice to repeat that final line, is reminiscent of Dylan. “Feral Children” finds her singing “There’s no words for the infinity of ghosts.” Like many of Dylan’s finest moments, I have no idea what it means, but it sounds like a great line.

Comfort of Strangers is a somewhat mellow affair at times, but it’s far from boring or sleepy. It has plenty of catchy, upbeat songs and Orton and O’Rourke aren’t afraid to add crashing drum beats to liven up her tunes, as evidenced by “Shopping Trolley.”

On “Shadow of a Doubt” she sings “It’s true that I have got a head full of voices saying the first thing that’s in their heart.” Luckily for us, most of it was caught on tape.

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