You can’t help but feel a bit for Beth Orton and the position she occupies in 2006. From her corner she will have no doubt watched umpteen less talented female singer-songwriters hit the big time in the last few years, while she herself has consistently failed to make the mainstream sit up and take much notice. You see, our Beth has never quite been rootsy enough to appeal to the coffee tables and Volvo car stereos of your typical Norah Jones fan. Similarly, her gently soothing beats and drifting lullabies have always been a bit too awkward and restless to get the average Dido buyer parting with their cash at the Tesco checkout. Comfort of Strangers, despite being Orton’s best record since 1999’s Central Reservation, is probably not going to do a great deal to change this situation. Recorded in two weeks with sometime Sonic Youth and Wilco collaborator, Jim O’Rourke, it’s an instantly familiar sounding record, that sets aside O’Rourke’s more leftfield tendencies to pursue a comforting route down the highway, taking in country, blues and radio pop along the way.
Surprisingly for someone who has so freely flitted from one style to the next, and racked up more collaborations than most rappers manage in a whole career, this is Beth Orton’s most focused album to date. Ranging from the skeletal folk of “Feral Children”, to the lush textures that swirl around Orton’s winsome voice on “Heart of Soul”, the music is never less that engaging. It’s just a shame that so many of these 14 tracks are so flimsy. Time and time again, charming melodies and flickering chords are restricted by being bound to songs that do a lot of daydreaming and whisping about without ever really going anywhere. It all sounds impressive, but there are too many strummed relationship tunes that are bordering on being plain dull. They’re songs that fail to make much of an impression, and have already blown away before you’ve even noticed them. And it really is a shame, because when she gets it right, Beth Orton is one of the most singularly distinctive voices in pop music.
Opener, “Worms” is as dizzily eccentric as she has ever been, Orton’s lilting voice sounding like a welcome old friend as it drifts out over a lolling, jazz tinged beat. Of course it’s a bit rough round the edges, the lyrics are frankly bonkers (there’s something here about chickens wishbones and backbones), and it bears a striking resemblance to Fiona Apple, but it sums up in three or four minutes the contrasting tones of despair and fragile hope that run through Orton’s best work. Likewise, a song like “Shadow of a Doubt” is an impossibly lovely ballad, bathed in heart-warming golden sunshine and delicately sung with an irresistible cracked autumnal glow.
Quite where this record sits in 2006 though, is a bit hazy. Beth Orton is no longer seen as the “comedown queen” of the ‘90s, when her post clubbing lullabies and Chemical Brothers collaborations soundtracked a gentler way into those bleary-eyed mornings. Ultimately, she is at a place where the quality of the songs is the only thing that will guarantee attention, and in truth, Comfort of Strangers is a mixed bag indeed. Whereas a song like “Heartland Truckstop” is a terrific dusty West Coast ballad, the LP’s first single “Conceived” is more typical in the way it veers dangerously close to mid-afternoon Radio 2 territory.
As an album, Comfort of Strangers comes across as a missed opportunity. For the most part the album sounds fantastic, and you really want the songs to hit the spot more than they do. Orton has had a bit of a whinge recently that her low profile is linked to the heavily male dominated music press. And whether it’s sour grapes or not, you can’t help but feel she might have a point. It’s in the grand old traditions of the music biz that people like Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst and Jeff Tweedy can be hyped up, fawned over and revered as demi-gods despite all displaying no small measure of bloody mindedness, whilst a woman like Beth Orton is viewed as unfocussed and ditsy when she does the same. This though, shouldn’t obscure, or excuse that Comfort of Strangers is littered with far too many forgettable songs to be anywhere near the classic she has occasionally promised.
Even Orton’s best work, Central Reservation was a patchy affair, but her talent sporadically burned brightly; always with the suggestion that she had a great record in there somewhere. Her problem is as evident here as it has ever been though, in that her songs are destined stay as something of a limited concern. They are neither instant enough jump up and demand your attention, nor do they have the depth and emotional resonance to reward repeat listening. Comfort of Strangers is an album of good tunes set to an easy, frequently beautiful folk rock landscape, and Beth Orton remains a singer who is still worth hearing. But however lovely this album sounds, the experience of listening is one that is always dashed with the disappointment that when it comes down to it, Orton’s songs are too often, just ordinary.