Comfort of Strangers
inger-songwriter Beth Orton has been blessed—or cursed, depending on how you look at it—to have collaborated with a great many artists over the course of her longer-than-you-probably-thought career (it stretches back to the early 1990s). The list is damn impressive: the Chemical Brothers, Red Snapper, William Orbit, Andrew Weatherall, Terry Callier, Dr. John, Ben Watt, Johnny Marr, Ryan Adams, and Emmylou Harris, among others. And while the results of these team-ups have, for the most part, been very good indeed, they have left listeners wondering: Who exactly is the real Beth Orton?
Count me among the skeptics that her latest collaboration—with the equally chameleonesque Jim O’Rourke—would shed any further light on Orton’s true musical identity. And color me shocked and pleased that it turns out that O’Rourke, rather than coating Orton’s honey-and-gravel voice in sonic debris or freaky guitar squall, turns out to be the perfect collaborator.
Sure, O’Rourke may have glommed onto Sonic Youth in their flagging latter days, made Stereolab sound even more like, um, other Stereolab records, and either ruined or brilliantly reinvented Wilco (again, depending on who you ask), but with Orton, his approach is refreshingly hands off, and that may be the highest compliment one can pay to his work here. These songs breathe, and that's something that Orton’s past partners haven’t let her consistently do. With a basic line-up of Tim Barnes on drums, O’Rourke on bass, piano, and the odd marimba, and Orton on guitar, piano, and harmonica, Comfort Of Strangers sticks with one sound and is all the stronger for it. Perhaps the most shocking instrument here is a stray organ, and considering some of the (over)production on Orton’s past albums, less is most definitely more.
Orton’s personality really shines through here—one that is refreshingly human and apparently quite in love (or at least in love with love). Her marvelous pipes always sound expressive and warm, but now that they are more of a focal point, it really hits home what an amazing instrument she has. She sounds free and happy and, at long last, three-dimensional. When on “Shopping Trolley”—co-written with M. Ward and a highlight—she sings, “I think I’m gonna cry / But I’m gonna laugh about it / All in time,” her voice perfectly expresses the contradictory feelings in the lyric, jubilant, depressed, and triumphant all at once. Later, on the anthemic “Heart Of Soul,” when she is positively begging you to “put a little love in your heart,” well, you’re a better man than I am if you can resist her charms.
Because she has toned down her vagabond ways and stayed within a fairly limited palate, Orton naturally finds herself prone to a bit of repetition here and there, and as such, there are a couple of points when she seems to be treading water. At 14 tracks long, Orton could have trimmed three or four cuts and left a near-flawless, efficient package that was all killer and no filler. As it stands, it is merely excellent.
Orton and O’Rourke haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel, and by aiming squarely for Earth rather than the stars, they have hit their target straight and true. Will Orton’s next record return to her genre-hopping ways? Only she knows for sure, and based on her past, I doubt that even she does. But whereever her musical travels take her from here on out, Comfort Of Strangers will remain a touchstone; a crystal-clear, untouchable portrait of her art and soul. Long may she run.