[11 March 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
The problem with re-evaluating Beth Orton’s debut album is simple: Trailer Park isn’t actually her debut album. Then again, such a detail as that only adds to Orton’s unmistakable charm; she’s never been a big fan of convention.
Beth Orton’s story actually starts back in 1993, right as dance and club music began carefully nudging its way into the British mainstream. It was during that year when Orton released her true-blue debut: SuperPinkyMandy, a dance-rock disc that emerged from her fruitful collaborations with electronic whiz-kid (and then-love interest) William Orbit. Though SuperPinkyMandy had an extremely limited Japanese release (less than 5,000 copies were produced), the album served as an admirable if somewhat unremarkable showcase for an emerging new songwriting talent. Due to her Orbit connection, it wasn’t too surprising that Orton would soon make her rounds with the electronica crowd, famously becoming a siren for the Chemical Brothers on virtually every one of their early full-lengths. When Orton finally did get around to recording her debut release, she wound up enlisting the help of producer Andrew Weatherall, the man who helmed Primal Scream’s rave-centric masterpiece Screamadelica; the prospect of him teaming up with an emerging dance vocalist like Orton made perfect sense on paper.
Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, upon hearing Trailer Park for the first time in 1996. Instead of turning into a run-of-the-mill dance diva, Orton picked up her acoustic guitar and—in one fell swoop—became the frontrunner in the post-Joni folk-pop sweepstakes. Though the album sold modestly well in the UK, critics couldn’t stop fawning over this newfound folk starlet, all the hype and praise culminating in Orton’s first Mercury Music Prize nomination in 1997. Yet amidst the gigantic sea of Lilith Fair wannabes that were around at the time, what made Orton’s plain, emotive voice stand out from the rest? Simple: Orton wrote better songs than everyone else.
Trailer Park opens with the cinematic “She Cries Your Name”, a haunting, majestic stunner of a song wherein yearning string sections and light acoustic plucking give ample grounding for Beth’s commanding pipes. Though her lyrics can be a bit cryptic at times (why is she crying your name “three times a game”?), Orton positively sells the meaning behind each line, which is why her cover of the Ronettes’ cult classic “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” manages to better the Phil Spector-produced original by doing nothing more than removing Spector’s bombastic backing arrangements and putting the lyrics front and center. Orton’s voice quivers ever-so-slightly on the pre-chorus, and—in a tale of love once lost and deeply regretted—the effect is nothing short of heartbreaking. As this one simple cover proves, few performers are as powerful as Beth Orton.
Yet even though it’s easy to cast Trailer Park as a straight-up folk record, part of the disc’s alluring charm is how it shamelessly flirts with other genres and still manages to sound like a cohesive whole. “Touch Me With Your Love” is a spacey, atmospheric beat-driven piece that very nearly flies out into coffee-house performance territory early on (the spoken-word intro, the standup bassline, etc.), but ultimately remains grounded due to its powerful, simmering groove. Splicing genres together is Orton’s profound specialty on this disc, which is why “Touch Me With Your Love”—which tops out at over seven minutes—oozes with a sweet sensuality that’s not exactly jazz and not exactly dub; it finds a sweet spot inbetween those genres and rides the groove all the way home.
Of course, this track is not the disc’s lone electronic anomaly. Immediately following “Touch Me With Your Love” is the dark, melancholic “Tangent”, a synth-heavy track that works more as a sonic experiment than it does a full-blown song, and without question the first true stumbling block that Trailer Park faces. The same cannot be said, however, for the closing 10-minute space-jazz epic “Galaxy of Emptiness”, which emits a warm, comforting glow even with its incessant xylophone noodling. Orton doesn’t even being singing until four minutes in, but when she does, she captures that feeling of romantic isolation quite beautifully:
The stars light the sky
In a galaxy of emptiness tonight
Oh I’m happiest when there’s no reason for me to be
When all those expectations
Weigh heavy on my heart
And so much hope
It sometimes tears me all apart
Oh won’t you please knock me off my feet for awhile?
Could you please knock me off my feet for awhile?
The strangest part about “Galaxy of Emptiness” is how—even with its extended string outro and repetitious beginning—it never feels like it’s wasting time. The few times that Orton does go into heavy electronic territory like this, she uses her surroundings well, grounding everything with jazz bass and letting the songs speak from themselves. Were she any other artist, “Galaxy” could’ve become an extended experiment in studio indulgence, but in Orton’s care, it’s a remarkable way to close the album.
Elsewhere, Orton manages to navigate between string-laced balladry (the stunning “Don’t Need a Reason”) and superb modern acoustic numbers (the mandolin-assisted “Whenever”) with remarkable ease. Unfortunately, Orton’s muse sometimes leads her into unabashed pop territory, and when she’s gearing her music specifically for radio play, she winds up pandering to an imaginary audience instead of playing to her strengths. The victims in question are the utterly disposable “Live as You Dream” and the solid but somewhat forgettable “Someone’s Daughter”. Both are perky, upbeat numbers that—in the sea of mid-tempo melancholic tracks that dominate so much of Trailer Park—feel remarkably out of place, interrupting the album’s otherwise-terrific flow and atmosphere. Though “Someone’s Daughter” is saved by its colorful, multi-layered production, both tracks still feel like pop songs in search of a proper home, and Trailer Park is most assuredly not it.
It’s a real shame that we have to endure some of these lesser numbers, as Trailer Park holds up remarkably well some 13 years after its initial release. When it comes to the requisite goody-bag of extras for the “Legacy Edition” of this album, however, what we get is a smattering of rare material that’s not really all that rare. Though Trailer Park‘s second disc treats us to supposedly hard-to-find B-sides like “Safety”, “Pedestal”, and “It’s Not the Spotlight” (all top-shelf, by the way), all of these tracks were released on yet another previously-released rarities disc: Orton’s 2003 retrospective album Pass in Time: The Definitive Collection had its own bonus rarities disc that featured all those aforementioned songs, ultimately forcing some fans to buy the same material twice-over. Also included here is Orton’s excellent 1997 Best Bit EP, but even that excellent mini-album gets a marred treatment here. We only get four of the EP’s five songs, as Orton’s exquisite solo acoustic version of “Touch Me With Your Love” is inexplicably excised, instead replaced with a dry live rendition of “Galaxy of Emptiness” and a useless instrumental version of “Touch Me With Your Love”.
Yet when we finally do get down to some of Orton’s genuinely lost tracks, all that comes up is gold. Though the wild frenzy of “Bullet” would have sounded completely out of place on Trailer Park, this excitable throwaway works wonders as a standalone song, the furious barroom piano solo in the middle almost making it worth the price of admission alone. A cover of the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” (from the soundtrack to the little-seen 1997 film Mojo) mixes canned string sections with Twin Peaks guitar strums, resulting in a delightfully surreal highlight, though admittedly nowhere near as otherworldly as her cover of Eric Sands’ “It’s This I am, I Find”, which—in Orton’s care—sounds like a fully-fledged Flaming Lips cover (no joking). The Best Bit EP by itself—track omissions aside—is still a career highlight, as the title track is arguably the only time where Orton’s emotional grounding and pop sensibilities manage to join together without compromising either aesthetic. The two collaborations with blues legend Terry Callier are also remarkably powerful (especially on their cover of “Lean on Me”).
Of course, Orton and Callier wound up working together on 1999’s Central Reservation, Orton’s follow-up to Trailer Park and her undisputed masterstroke (cue Mercury Music Prize nomination number two ...). Though the songwriting on that album brought all of Orton’s talents into sharp focus, by all means it shouldn’t lessen the impact of Trailer Park, a fantastic charmer of a record that doesn’t play to any one particular genre, instead letting Orton’s talents breathe on their own accord. No, Trailer Park isn’t perfect, but when you have highs as powerful as “She Cries Your Name” and “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine”, it’s really hard to let our inner-cynics get all nitpicky. It may not be her proper debut album, but Trailer Park is most definitely the moment when Beth Orton officially arrived.