No matter where she is in her career, raw beauty seeps deeply into Beth Orton’s music. Since “She Cries Your Name” made her a household name, the British songwriter has tastefully blended elements of genres like folk and electronica to create an atmosphere of raw emotion, an image whose impact is not felt through the characters but the setting itself. With each passing album, Orton’s hand not only becomes steadier in painting that landscape, but also more confident. This is apparent with her latest album, Kidsticks, which depicts a grand universal backdrop while retaining the same intimacy and personality that fans have come to expect from the veteran songwriter.
It’s a tough balance to strike; yet Orton still finds a way for the ten-track album to go off without a hitch, and it’s mainly because of her methodology in structuring her songs. The ethereal soundscapes, tribal rhythms, flutes, and light synths are intriguing on their own, but the British songwriter is not content with superficial elegance. Instead, she fastens her lyrics—pertaining mostly to themes of identity, relationships, and nature—onto the winding flutes and hollow yet effective percussion at just the right moments to establish symbiosis between lyrics and instrumentation. In a light falsetto over a sparse, quirky electronic beat, she sings “Swimming in my mind in my electric mind” on the album’s single “1973”. On “Dawnstar”, synths that mimic the noise of a shooting star in an empty sky ring out as Orton poignantly notes, “We’re a long far way from somewhere we have ever been.” Even on “Corduroy Legs”, a song whose instrumentation carries enough meaning on its own, she accentuates the intimate flutes, strings, and shakers by stating that her friend’s hands “holds me holding you.” It’s one thing to have good instrumentation or well-written lyrics, but Orton takes both into consideration at the same time, and the result is both beautiful and heavenly.
Besides her high-register soprano, Orton also contrasts the grandiose soundscapes in this album with localized acoustic and tribal instrumentation. Opener “Snow” balances the electronic beat with some raw percussion, while songs like “Falling” bring in keys that both add to the quirkiness of the track and give it a human quality that it might have not had otherwise. On the other hand, though, “Falling” and “Flesh and Bone” sometimes don’t have enough acoustic instruments, or—if they do—they fail to add the sense of closeness that they were supposed to create.
However, for the most part, Beth Orton is a master of folktronica, evolving as an artist right alongside the genre itself. As newer and more sophisticated technology has transported modern electronic music to heights that the genre’s forefathers could never have imagined, Orton has worked them into her music without sacrificing her musical thumbprint in the process. Her synths line up perfectly with the soaring flutes, the eccentric electronic bass line on “Falling” matches up perfectly with the keys. Like a world-class baker, her measurements of electronic and folk are so precise that the resulting cake is one that has few lumps or burned sides. Even on the spots that are blemished, the imperfection is so difficult to notice that it might as well have not been there at all.
Throughout this review, an assortment of adjectives have been used to describe Kidsticks, and while they accomplish their intended aim, they also leave many nuances and sentiments out of the picture as well. The wonderful thing about this album is that no matter how often one goes back to it, there is always some new galaxy to discover, a new planet to visit, a new rock to look under. Orton’s music lends itself to revisiting not only because she makes well-written, polished songs, but because the possible roads that lead to Kidsticks‘ universe are endless. There is no road less traveled for Beth Orton; each is new, making every trip as unique and fruitful as its predecessors and eventual successors.