February 23, 2006

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Beth Orton, Comfort of Strangers
Astralwerks, 2006

Broken-hearted.That’s what you think listening to Beth Orton’s Comfort of Strangers, but after closer analysis you realize that the UK singer-songwriter’s subjects span more of love and life’s complexities, like her fourth track, “Rectify,” a fast-paced tune, or the slower title track, “Comfort of Strangers.”

The music is exceptional. It stands out from overproduced CDs with her folk roots keeping accompaniment simple but dynamic, and her much lauded voice lends a raw truthfulness to the songs. She recruited Jim O’Rourke, guitar virtuoso, to perform on the album, and he also produced it. The raw sound is probably thanks to their decision to do most of the songs in one take, without much in the way of overdubs.

Harmonica on “Absinthe,” for example, and gentle instrumentals with persistent rhythms like a soft heartbeat, and a simple piano melody coming in as an answer to her plaintive chorus, “I can hear rebellion rising,” finishing with harmonica again, brings one back to a more old-fashioned roots sound, while “Heart of Soul” gets insistent and demanding.

The overall effect is mellower than, say, her 1997 album, Trailer Park, but more mature. The music is diverse but with more continuity than her 1999 Central Reservation, although that does feature her voice beautifully.
Heard previously on William Orbit’s Hinterland and the Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust, Orton spent time on the Lilith Fair circuit in the U.S. One gets the feeling from listening to her music that Beth Orton has lived through a lot and is facing the imperfections of love and life with experience and acceptance. B
Heidi Masek