Do we admit to the Ten Year Syndrome? Conventional wisdom suggests that with many singers and bands it’s more often than not their earlier work that carries the most weight. Every now and then, however, a few artists spectacularly explode the theory by producing something startling and special around the ten-year mark of their careers, a sense of renewal so profound that it often results in their finest work. How else to explain Bob Dylan with Blood on the Tracks. Or What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. Tom Waits and Swordfishtrombones. U2’s Actung Baby. The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Stevie Wonder with Talking Book…
Beth Orton is a famously good singer, as evidenced by the three albums that have so conspicuously built her worldwide reputation over the past decade. Not even that illustrious body of work, however, can properly prepare you for the extraordinarily personal, almost naked and most certainly honest emotional qualities of Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton’s new album released in February 2006.
Its production values are deceptively uncomplicated. Deceptive, because the album’s stripped-down sonics allow the emotional complexities of Beth Orton’s performances – and particularly her premiership talents as a songwriter – to flourish; at times sad, funny, playful and poignant, romantic, always lyrical and on occasion even a touch sentimental. Indeed, coming after her opening trilogy of albums, Comfort of Strangers represents a total sense of reinvention, a fabulous alchemy resulting from a set of simple rules that Beth Orton decided for the new CD.
In 2004, when she was contemplating the direction for her next album, Orton determined it would be an analog recording with sparse arrangements and a spontaneous, almost live, feel. It would be also recorded quickly with minimal overdubs; an intimate new route map for her music.
These rules coincided with a remembered guitar sound from a few years before. Beth Orton recalled the dexterous fingerpicking style of American guitar virtuoso Jim O’Rourke on his 1999 recording, “Halfway to a Threeway”, a sound and ambiance that demonstrated many of the qualities she had in mind for her own album.
Since the time of the “Halfway” EP, O’Rourke had joined the legendary Sonic Youth and, in addition to his own acclaimed solo albums, worked on recordings by such diverse groups as Wilco, Stereolab, Smog as well as the noted American guitarist John Fahey – a career trajectory that curiously complemented Orton’s own history of restless experimentation and eclectic tastes in collaborators.
Orton and O’Rourke met in January 2005, listening to all the songs she had lined up for the album. Instead of being simply a hired gun guitarist on the album O’Rourke volunteered to produce Comfort of Strangers, insisting he required only five days in the studio. In the event, it took two weeks to finish the recordings, created in the immediacy of the moment. It’s mostly a one take CD – two takes maximum, with minimal overdubs. Nothing has been second-guessed and everything complies with Beth Orton’s self-imposed rules for the album.
Recorded at New York’s Sear Sound studio in the spring of 2005, Comfort of Strangers comprises 14 songs all composed by Beth Orton with the title track written in partnership with O’Rourke and singer-songwriter M. Ward. Perhaps it’s ironical, but Jim O’Rourke plays very little guitar on the album. Comfort of Strangers features Beth Orton on guitar, piano and harmonica with O’Rourke on bass, piano and marimba and the American percussionist Tim Barnes – whose credits include work with Wilco, the Silver Jews and Neil Hagerty – on drums. The album is completed with occasional overdubs from the Tin Hat Trio’s pianist, Rob Burger.
The year 2006 marks the 10th anniversary of Beth Orton’s eye-opening debut, Trailer Park, an album that came as the culmination of a long and circuitous apprenticeship.
Born in Norfolk, she and her mother moved to London when Beth was 14 years old. She spent her late teens engrossed in a veritable plethora of music – “The Beatles’ White Album and Revolver, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, the Cocteau Twins, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, John Martyn, Shinehead, Blondie, the Beastie Boys, The Clash, Jimi Hendrix, The Specials, Eek-a-Mouse, Led Zeppelin, The Jam, Rickie Lee Jones, Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Prince, Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside, even my mother’s classical and opera records”, she says.
“I immersed myself in songwriters but I was brought up in a house where the walls literally shook from the music played by my brother who went through every genre of music from punk to hip hop and everything in between, all played at deafening volume. I can’t tie it all up, it almost seems as though there is too much”.
This enormous fascination with music of all kinds was later evident in Beth Orton’s impatient imagination, the almost headlong desire to embark on new ideas and partnerships. Yet despite this driving force in her music career, Beth Orton’s initial ambitions as she reached the end of her teens were more firmly focused on acting. Indeed, Beth Orton spent some time touring in fringe theatre – she once played Rimbaud’s lover in ‘A Season in Hell’ – before meeting up with dance producer William Orbit who was to become her first musical mentor and collaborator.
Orton’s debut came as one half of the duo Spill, a one-off project with Orbit recording a cover version of John Martyn’s “Don’t Wanna Know About Evil”. She also worked with Orbit on his 1993 “Strange Cargo” project, co-writing and singing “Water From a Vine Leaf”.
Beth’s path towards a solo career was further signposted when Orbit produced “Superpinkymandy”, a rare recording released only in Japan.
As a consequence of her rising reputation Beth Orton was asked to sing “Alive Alone”, a stand out track on The Chemical Brothers’ astonishing1995 debut album, Exit Planet Dust. She also worked with the freak-beat jazz combo Red Snapper, providing the vocals for their first singles, “Snapper” and “In Deep”, before setting about the serious business of recording her own worldwide debut album.
Trailer Park, released in October 1996, was an intriguing step forward, blending Beth Orton’s guitars with samples and beats on an album of starkly personal and sensual songs. Produced by Victor Van Vught (of Tindersticks and Nick Cave fame) and Andrew Weatherall (responsible Primal Scream’s classic Screamadelica, an album that Beth Orton claims introduced her to dance music), Trailer Park suggested the emergence of a new kind of rhythm-fuelled folk – a significance recognized when it was shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 1997, with the judges claiming Beth to be the “queen of the heartbreak vocal”. The album also marked the start of Beth Orton’s long musical partnership with guitarist Ted Barnes.
The year 1997 proved very productive for Beth. She toured incessantly, supporting the likes of John Martyn, Tindersticks, John Cale, Mark Eitzel and Everything But The Girl before selling out her own headline tours and playing her first Glastonbury Festival. Beth Orton also made her American debut, playing with Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris on the Lilith Fair tour before headlining her own dates in the autumn, the overwhelmingly favorable response to which the start of her enduring reputation in the United States.
Back in the studio, Orton collaborated with The Chemical Brothers once again, contributing a vocal to their smash hit number one album, Dig Your Own Hole, before recording her own “Best Bit” EP, its soulful sound highlighted by Orton’s two duets with the folk-jazz legend, Terry Callier.
Beth’s second album, Central Reservation, was released in the spring of 1999. Terry Callier was again featured together with guest appearances from the likes of Dr. John, Ben Harper, Mazzy Star’s David Roback and Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl. The album was far more reflective than Trailer Park, with dance beats exchanged for a purer folk sound. The result, however, was equally captivating. Central Reservation was a popular and critical hit, with Beth Orton again being shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize. The following year, 2000, Beth Orton won the Best British Female accolade at the UK’s Brit Awards.
In 1999 she returned to America for the annual Lilith Fair tour, followed by such prestigious dates as the Newport Folk Festival and, in 2000, her own headlining concert series, all of which came as she was riding a wave of commercial and critical success – indeed, ‘Stolen Car’ from ‘Central Reservation’ was Beth’s first American hit.
It was to take another two years for Orton to release her third album, which came in July 2002. Daybreaker was epic in its scope and ambition with a massive soundscape ranging from The Chemical Brothers-produced title track to the country inflections of “God Song”, a tune that featured guest vocalist Emmylou Harris.
Daybreaker was distinguished by an impressive array of producers, mixers and musicians. In addition to The Chemical Brothers, Beth Orton invited old friends and new conspirators William Orbit, Ben Watt, Johnny Marr, Jim Keltner, Ryan Adams and Victor Van Vugt to help shape the album’s widescreen qualities.
It was an immediate success on both sides of the Atlantic, the accolades complemented by the applause for Beth Orton’s powerful live show that toured Europe – including a sell out show at London’s Royal Albert Hall – and America in the wake of the album’s release. By this time Beth Orton’s reputation as both a songwriter and performer was such that her place in modern music was assured. Just as significantly, however, for Beth Orton Daybreaker came as the closing statement, the final chapter, in her opening trilogy of albums. Her next recording would be very different indeed.
The last word on Beth Orton’s work goes to Dave Eggers, author of the esteemed novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and an astute witness to the sheer and extraordinary emotional drive of Beth Orton’s music. Asked about his listening pleasures when writing the book, Eggers told a journalist: “I went out to the Wiz off the highway to buy a CD or two and ended up getting Beth Orton’s Central Reservation. Then I did what I always do, I latched onto a particular song, in this case “Sweetest Decline”, and listened to that one song, on a continuous loop, for the next six days. No joke. I tend to try to wear a song out, to rid myself of it. But that song, I still haven’t solved. I still listen to it for days on end.”