Photo credit: Valerie Philips
Beth Orton walks out briskly, lithe and rail-thin, but with a grin and stride that betray a healthy diet or an onstage confidence built brick-by-brick from shy beginnings. Adoring fans yell declarations of love to the pixie-like singer, whose presence tonight marks the end of a sabbatical spanning some five years between studio albums. From somewhere in the back, an assemblage of fashionable 30-somethings pour dinner-type chatter into the already overpowering “industry showcase” atmosphere that hangs tonight in the smoke-free air. The show, Orton explains, is the last date of her North American tour. “We’ve got nothing to lose,” she says in an excitable, very British tone, “We’ll have to have some fun tonight.”
Orton is one of those lucky musicians who, years ago, either stumbled onto a scene just as it was gaining mass appeal or helped create it. Either way, she’s never wandered far from her winning formula of folk songs by day and cameos with the likes of the Chemical Brothers and William Orbit by night. Indeed in the mid-‘90s, at the crossroads of break beat and a lo-fi Depression-era folk revival—two fast-emerging scenes—Orton, whose career awkwardly straddled both sounds, must have been a PR agent’s wet dream.
This selling-point seems to have persisted uninterrupted right up to tonight. A perfunctory introductory speech, recited by an LA radio personality, exhumes a whole back-catalog of media-friendly taglines that have been applied at some time or another to Orton’s oeuvre. With the press marveling so at a folk singer who can also be into electronic music, it’s no surprise that Orton’s reputation was quick to take flight all those years ago. But wade past the industry-generated plug of the “folk singer with an electronic edge”, and the visceral appeal of Orton’s music has always been her songwriting. That and her voice, at once flatly ironic and brilliantly compassionate. Two compelling albums attest to this; perhaps widely popular for their genre-bending allure, but no doubt unanimously liked for their unpretentious and at times exuberant musical offerings.
Sadly, tonight holds little of that exuberance. Pushing off into “Galaxy of Emptiness”, one of her earlier and more glumly existential works, Orton reveals a newer, sleeker sound (and a decidedly grave take on “having some fun”). Cloaked in a heavy swathe of keyboards, strings, and booming double bass, the song—and the four or five that follow—are drenched in mood; rich in Orton’s trademark vocals; but conspicuously lacking in everything else. A casual listen to Daybreaker, Orton’s latest album, confirms this change, a marked divergence even from its predecessor, Central Reservation.
Released in 1997, Central Reservation is arguably Orton’s most striking work to date, replete with dusty folk strains and sawing, grinding acoustic pieces that linger on in the trailing silences. It is by and large a folk album, with bleeps and beats reserved only for a couple of incongruous, though still remarkable songs. Like Trailer Park before it, the album is perforated seemingly at random by dizzying highs and lows and, at the time of release, held all kinds of promises: a shot in the arm to folk music, a fresh and adventurous take on the dreaded singer-songwriter, and a pristine and vulnerable voice of the type not heard since Joni Mitchell’s.
Daybreaker departs unsentimentally from all this, surrendering the gently sun-faded ballad for mysterious, droning songs more suited to the Black Forest than the back porch. Tracks like “Mt. Washington” unfold like bitter narratives against a montage of saturated instrumentals. Melodies stir tentatively and vanish before taking shape, while thick, indistinguishable layers of sound coat each song, capsule-like, until they’re slickly forgettable.
The change is no doubt a push to iron out the inconsistencies of her past work; challenge her rising media stardom as the Martha Stewart of eclectic pop (or, worse still, “alt-country”); and at the same time arrive at a more coherent, codified synthesis of folk and electronic sounds—a marriage never entirely hashed out in her work to date. But while no one can fault Orton for evolving—arguably maturing—musically, with Daybreaker we’re left wondering whether she’s trying too hard or simply not hard enough. Innocent, heartfelt melodies have been swapped for calculated mood and atmosphere, and a surplus of guest musicians ranging from Orbit to Ryan Adams vie for sonic domination rather than subtly complimenting—as Terry Callier and Ben Harper did so well before them—Orton’s own musical style.
But despite it all, the crowd tonight loves it. Orton herself is chatty, spilling out lively banter and random profanities that no doubt shock and offend those audience members who came expecting electronic lounge music and Herman Miller chairs. Among the better moments, “Someone’s Daughter”, another oldie, provides a welcome change of pace, here surfacing as a psychedelic, partly-yelled monologue that would fit right in on an anthology of Patti Smith mouthing off to Bowie records. The often remixed “Central Reservation” continues the trend of unlikely arrangements, this time being pumped out to a throbbing club beat as a five-foot disco ball descends slowly from its perch. The highest point of the evening though is “Pass in Time”, a strummed ballad from Central Reservation built on the sentiments of a daughter’s last moments with her mother. Orton plays it passionately and with unprecedented strength; it resonates far beyond the premise of its original recording.
It’s clear then, after all this, that Orton still has the ability to reach the heights and depths she has in the past. And who knows, sometime or other she may make good on one or two of those promises—the ones about bringing vitality to music. She could probably do it too if she feels like it, that is. Only if she feels like it.