Beth Orton’s career has always been defined by an identity crisis. Although her initial claim to fame was the result of a few serendipitous collaborations with the Chemical Brothers, just as electronica was taking off as the next big thing in the mid-‘90s, her best work has been more conventional in nature: lively, catchy folk numbers that gave a little edge and bite to singer-songwriterly adult alternative fare. In trying to live up to the “folktronica” tag that Orton came to rep, her own music, ironically enough, lost its own sense of direction, leaving her early albums feeling disjointed in her attempt to cover all her bases. So while her resonant, rough-grained voice served as a nice counterpoint to your typical techno diva guest spot, Orton’s formula often seemed more inspired on paper than in performance, stuck between making good on what she made her name on and figuring out where her real strengths lied.
Perhaps it took her a while to settle into a better understanding of what’s most compelling about her music, but Orton seems to have found her voice as an artist by breaking things down to their basic, time-tested elements. Sugaring Season, Orton’s sixth full-length and first since 2006, is her most straightforward, comfortable-in-her-own skin folk-pop affair, a consistent listen that isn’t muddled by the fuss and distractions of celebrity DJ remixes and electro beats. No, that’s not another way of saying that Sugaring Season is a café-rock effort that splits the difference between mature and boring; on the contrary, the new record is a coherent and cohesive piece that depends more on nuance and execution than hit-or-miss novelty.
Even though Sugaring Season has a quiet, contemplative feel to it, the album’s surprisingly full sound sneaks up on you, revealing a richness that doesn’t have to fall back on synthetic rhythms or production tricks for texture and depth. With Tucker Martine, who’s produced the Decemberists and My Morning Jacket, at the helm and a full complement of seasoned hands like Marc Ribot, Laura Veirs, and Orton’s husband Sam Amidon helping out, much of the effort evokes a pastoral quality that’s unexpectedly lush and organic. The Celtic tones of the opener “Magpie” blossom slowly but surely with to a billowing arrangement of organ, piano, and fiddle, while chamber music orchestration and piano chords give the poignant “Last Leaves of Autumn” a little oomph as they lift Orton’s wearied voice. The give-and-take between singer-songwriter introspection and a bolder aesthetic is most fully realized on “Something More Beautiful”, as what sounds like a whole honest-to-goodness string section buoys Orton’s vocals, conveying her innermost thoughts — “When you feel too much to ever let it show / You turn it up, turn it down, turn it on, turn it round” — in a viscerally personal way.
At her best on Sugaring Season, Orton brings to mind the best-case-scenario benchmarks for someone working within the tradition she does. The obvious influence of Nick Drake’s work on hers comes through on “Dawn Chorus”, what with the sense of wide-eyed, starry-night wonder that the able interplay of Orton’s twinkling acoustic picking and the brisk, shuffling percussion gets across. But it’s the less likely cross-references that speak to Orton’s proficiency as a songwriter and performer. On “Poison Tree”, adapted from the William Blake poem (the one that begins, “I was angry with my friend / I told my wrath, my wrath did end”), Orton taps into a noir-folk idiom more convincingly than anywhere else here, as she offers up her best rendition of a Richard and Linda Thompson psychodrama, if only it was embellished by Dirty Three-ish violin. More crowd-pleasing is the gentle scoot of “Call Me the Breeze”, which beefs up Orton’s tender aesthetic just enough with a Wilco-esque boogie, thanks to some spirited Wurlitzer organ lines.
While the whole album can’t quite sustain the easygoing thrills of its high points, going out with less of a bang and more of a whimper, Sugaring Season still makes a good case that it’s better late than never that Orton is finding her own vision as an artist. Beth Orton might be someone whose work we’ve known about for a while now, but it’s only after all this time, with Sugaring Season, that she’s really starting to sound like she’s coming into her own, finally unburdened by the weight of trends and the expectations of what she and her music were supposed to be.