Beth Orton: The Other Side of Daybreak

Beth Orton
The Other Side of Daybreak

The Other Side of Daybreak is a nearly new album. It comes as the sequel to Beth Orton‘s third studio album, Daybreaker (2002), in the form of a collection of remixes, retakes, alternative b-sides, and as is often the case with sequels, what some might call leftover ideas. One has been conditioned to approach such works with a healthy dose of skepticism, where the ultimate judgment rests upon two fundamental questions: Is the material of inferior quality to its predecessor and, regardless of quality, is the material significantly different for the consumer not to feel ripped off?

This latest album consists primarily of two musical sounds, electronic and acoustic, that are representative of the identity crisis that Orton has developed of late. The dichotomy is more apparent than ever here with tracks that are strictly either folkie studio outtakes or electronic remixes and this seems to be Orton’s defiant answer to those seeking to categorize her music. Unfortunately, the impression it projects is not so much one of freedom of expression and exploration, but one of intensified uncertainty that lacks the raw quality of her debut album, Trailer Park, and the emotional intensity of her second album Central Reservation.

Orton offers five remixes from Daybreaker on this new album. While “Thinking about Tomorrow” easily stood out as one of the best tracks on Daybreaker, the dub on The Other Side by the International Peoples Gang stands, literally, on the other side. The makeover is bland, culminating in six minutes of mind-numbing drum and bass riffs and random electronic bleeps that pass over you in a wash of dreary sounds drab enough to make even a rainy Sunday seem bright. Four Tet’s roots-tronica versions of “Daybreaker” and “Carmella” are, by contrast, canny ruminations of the originals with some tight interplay between Orton’s vocals and electronic loops that do more than just rehash. “Anywhere”, remixed by Two Lone Swordsmen, spits out electro pulses in an ambient air that conjures up images of driving aimlessly late at night along silent roads. Exactly. It may be soothing, but it takes you nowhere. The remix by Roots Manuva of “Daybreaker” is just downright silly. Outfitted in hip-hop style beats with contrasting vocals between Orton’s wispy singing and Roots Manuva’s rapping, the result is laughable.

The acoustic tracks are arguably what make this album worth listening to. They unearth the folkie side of Orton and stand out as sonically evocative and emotionally gratifying tracks that expand the imagery of her lyrics and allow you front row access to the finely tuned nuances of her exquisite vocals. The first is the remake of the Five Stairsteps’ 1970 classic soul hit “Ooh Child”. Stripped down to its barest components, Orton’s somber voice lingers over each syllable under the gentle pickings of her acoustic guitar played at a brooding tempo. “Ali’s Waltz”, the counterpart to “Ted’s Waltz” from Daybreaker, is an intimate ballad with touching lyrics “I heard that love is a verb” complimented by a sparse yet refined guitar accompaniment by Ted Barnes. The heart-wrenching singular highlight track of the album is the live version of “Concrete Sky”. Co-written with Johnny Marr (there are obvious tell-tale signs), and recorded this time without Ryan Adams, this simplified version performs a far superior job of doing justice to the evocative lyrics: “And there’s a concrete sky / Falling from the trees again and you know now why / It’s not coming round too soon, it’s harder than a heartbreak too / It’s tough enough what love will do”.

There are some real gems hidden in here, though the jumbling of genres and quality makes for an album that sounds altogether ill at ease. This is an album probably best reserved for existing Orton fans and it’s unlikely to garner her many new fans. As a sequel, it doesn’t rate as highly as Daybreaker and as an album, despite some spectacular acoustic performances, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that this is her poorest attempt yet.