4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Beth Orton gives me hope that the most meaningful music didn't end with the 70s. The gangly indie folk artist's 1996 solo debut, "Trailer Park," which mixed eletronica with introspective ballads that cut to the bone, has been re-released with a second CD that gathers up material released on EPs, B-sides, and soundtracks. This is one trailer park you'll want to visit time and time again.
Born in Norfolk, England, Orton entered music almost on a whim after meeting dance producer William Obit in a London night club. Obit and Orton formed Spill, recording a version of John Martyn's "Don't Wanna Know About Evil," which became the first track off of the duet's album, "SuperPinkyMandy." The one-off project, more influenced by Obit's muse than Orton's, was released only in Japan. She continued to work with Obit, co-writing and singing the track "Water From a Vine Leaf" on his 1993 album, "Strange Cargo 3." Orton then formed a band of her own, comprised of guitarist Ted Barnes, drummer Will Blanchard, keyboard player Lee Spencer, and double bassist Ali Friend. Her first proper release, "Trailer Park," with collaborative compositions by the trio of Orton/Barnes/Friend, blended samples and tri-hop beats together with acoustic guitars and passionate observations.
Orton's woeful delivery and downcast lyrics were influenced by early 70s folk casualty Nick Drake. Whereas Drake's depression ruled him, ultimately contributing to his premature demise, Orton used her personal disappointments to inspire her. "She Cries Your Name," commences with slippery, electronic strings and Orton's Drake-like chording. Orton's percussive guitar blends with Blanchard's rat-a-tat drumming and Spencer's sneaky bits of sonar-like synths updating Drake's look-into-my-soul sound.
"Tangent" is ominous, foggy electronica with a bomping double bass beat, tensioned-horror film strings and a marvelously defeated vocal by Orton. Blanchard's jazzy drumming provides a whipping and rolling backdrop to Keith Teniswood's ray gun synth strikes and assorted threatening violins and violas. (Oh my gawd, focused jazz drumming!)
The bouncy optimism of "Live Your Dream" interrupts Orton's emotional confessions. It's surprisingly lightweight, very poppy - and very bad. Stick with the manic depressive material, Beth, it's much more revealing, and memorable. Without it, you might as well be Mary Hopkin, talented - but a pub folkie.
Orton employs the quiet pop of a conga to accent Blanchard's near-calypso style drumming in "Sugar Boy." The chorus is a flourish of hand claps and sweeping organ supplied by David Boulter, with Orton pointing a lyrical finger at the dude who done her wrong: "Well I told you I loved you, now what more can I do? Told you I loved you, you beat my heart black and blue. I told you I loved you, now what more can I do? Do you want me to lay down and die for you? Do you want me to lay down and die?"
Orton turns beat poet with "Touch Me With Your Love." She recites her opening lines to a repetitive warm up bass line against percussion that sounds like someone dropping a quarter on the street. Although she acted earlier in her career and spent time touring Great Britain, Russia and the Ukraine, Orton processes a thick cockney accent. (Some things you can't de-program.) You may need to follow along with the lyrics to figure out what she says. Its touch and go until Orton slurs her way through the verses like her heroine, Bobbie Gentry, tapping into the soft shuffle beat as Friend plucks out an impressive solo on double bass.
"Whenever" gives the listener a break from the thick electronica, casting Orton back in her Nick Drake cloak, which she wears very well. Dancing acoustic guitars, happy double-tracked "do-do-do-da-days" give "Whenever" an extended "Pink Moon" feel.
"How Far" is another stab at cutie pie pop. There's clean electric guitar work from guest Andrew Hackett and a snappy, 60s girl group arrangement with syncopated clapping, shaking tambourines and a double-tracked Beth. It's all very pleasant, but not essential.
A now blissful Beth makes it three pop tunes in a row with "Someone's Daughter," which benefits from Blanchard's tripping snare, Orton's unabashed wailing and Barnes's dynamic mandolin and guitar work. The Duchess of despair can be proud that she's finally nailed a happy song.
Orton then covers The Ronettes' "I Wish I Never Saw Sunshine." It's introspective, with Orton wearing her pain on the end of her guitar strings and in her wraith-like cries. It puts Beth back where she belongs, singing a tune that reaches out and grabs your heart.
With the epic ten minute closer, "Galaxy of Emptiness" Orton returns to bubbling, sputtering space electronica, special effects, and undulating upright bass. It's the most experimental and least accessible track on the album, clocking in at ten swirling, psychotic minutes, but there's nothing empty about it!
Disc 2...Another Trip To The Park...
Fans of Orton will recognize some of the material from her "Best Bit" EP that featured Orton's mentor, folk-jazz singer, Terry Callier. For those of you who've never heard any of "Best Bit," or have been searching in vain for any of the four songs featured on the EP, they're all gathered on Disc two.
Callier voices Fred Neil's "Dolphins" with Orton, displaying a rich, made-for-folk tone. Callier is also on board for a version for "Lean on Me" (not Bill Withers' song, but one with that same title he wrote). Both duets feature some nifty mood setting vibes, and the inspirational "Lean on Me" shows how well the mentor and student work together. The other songs from "Best Bit," include the title track (you also get an early version, so you get two bits), plus "Skimming Stone."
Orton also capably covers "It's Not the Spotlight" written by keyboardist Barry Goldberg of Electric Flag and KGB fame. The short "Safety" with a melody modeled after CSN'S "You Don't Have to Cry," finds Orton confident as a solo acoustic player and in clear voice, with little trace of her usual cockney delivery.
What Orton does with the live version of "Galaxy of Emptiness" will leave you checking the CD cover to see if it's the same tune. The song's spaceyness has been sucked out. The chirping, gurgling synths have been replaced by cellos and a bossa nova beat has supplanted the previous harder edged atmosphere. Not sure I like the more homogenized version, but talk about re-inventing a song!
"Pedestal" is an overly long, rambling acoustic piece with a nice faint church organ that sneaks in toward the conclusion. In contrast, it's followed by an instrumental version of "Touch Me With Your Love" that's a steady stream of drum machines, harmonium, and distant vocalizations all dressed up in electronica. It's an opportunity to appreciate Ali Friend's slick acoustic bass playing, but it does go on a bit.
"It's This I Am I Find" not only has a strange title, it trips along on a semi-reggae "Lively Up Yourself" beat matched against unruly keyboards that seem to have an option to resemble a glockenspiel. The synth/rhythm conflict is never resolved, making "It's This I Am I Find" an uneven, difficult listen. "Bullet" is more of a straight shooter, and has a nice honky tonk piano solo and some diligent dobro, but the "Too Much Monkey Business" pacing will leave you with the indelible impression it's an unfinished piece.
The real surprise on the second CD is the final song, "I Love How You Love Me." For those of us with really sharp memories, yes, it's a cover of a song associated with crooner Bobby Vinton. "The Polish Prince" was one of the most uncool singers in the 60s, a throwback to Al Martino and other obsolete lounge singers. Vinton did have a string of hits, notably "Mr. Lonely," "Blue Velvet" (given a perverse appreciation when it was used as the title track of the movie of the same name), "Sealed With a Kiss" and the aforementioned track, which reached #9 on the singles charts. Orton reinvents the song in a glitzy, but more hip Dusty Springfield vein.
And Make Your Reservation for Beth's Second Album...
Released in 1999, Orton's sophomore effort, "Central Reservation" (3 out of 5 stars), was a continuation of the folk and electronica themes of her first album with Beth continuing to tap into her reservoir of wounded memories. "Reservation's" haunting highlights included "The Sweetest Decline," a withering waltz with weeping violins, the "Outer Limits" opulence of "Stars That Seem to Weep," and the free flowing funk of "Love Like Laughter." Orton seemed on her way to fulfilling her promise as her generation's Nick Drake.
That promise took a precipitous nosedive with her eclectic third release, 2002's "Daybreaker" (2 out of 5 stars). When Orton played to her strengths, such as the chugging muted-horn funk of "Anywhere," and the computerized melancholy of "Thinking About Tomorrow," "Daybreaker" matched the techno splendor of the previous two albums. Orton was at her best when her pained, world-weary voice was masked by synthesizers, expressive strings or third world beats. She stripped some of her songs down on "Daybreaker," and without the fuller sound her occasionally indecipherable accent was more exposed, and songs that could have been interesting now came across as bores. Orton also collaborated with the never exciting Ryan Adams on the pedestrian travelogue "Concrete Sky." Adams also wrecked "This One's Gonna Bruise" and "Carmella" with his vanilla alt country influence, and Emmylou "Hear's a Who" Harris condemned "God's Song" with her foggy mental breakdown back up singing.
"The Other Side of Daybreak," a ten track alternate version of the album followed in 2003. (I'd love to hear what the track "Bobby Gentry" sounds like.) "Pass in Time," a 2- CD "greatest hits" package was released the same year. Her fourth album, 2006's "Comfort of Strangers" (2 out of 5 stars) was recorded in two weeks. Unfortunately, it sounded like it. This time there were no horns or keyboards, only guitar, piano and drums. The minimalist approach further served to expose, rather than enhance Orton's fragile vocal range. Orton wanted a spontaneous, organic feel, and many of the songs were recorded in one or two takes. She cut down on the length of her songs, and the radio-friendly "Conceived" was playful pathos. Much to my delight, Orton covered Tony Joe White's "Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You" on the bonus import disc, which showed that although she was no longer capable of making good music, she was at least listening to some.
What's admirable about Orton's Legacy edition of "Trailer Park" is the second disk of extra material. Too many Legacy editions rely on outtakes, live renditions, or demos of songs that wound up on the original release, so sometimes you wind up hearing a variation of the same song three times. Bravo, Beth, for offering something different.
Orton's career may have taken on a more mundane folksy sound of late, but her first and best album successfully presented songs so personal you'll feel as if Orton's peaked into your soul.
Park yourself in front of the biggest hi-fi (do they still make those?) and hitch up to Beth Orton's "Trailer Park."