Album review: Beth Orton mixes the bitter and the sweet on ‘Sugaring Season’
Capable of creating both lush, verdant landscapes of sound and sparse, haunting ballads, Beth Orton is a master of the acoustic guitar-driven, folk-pop song.
As a singer-songwriter, Orton emerged in the late ’90s, blending folk and acoustic music with elements of electronica and trip-hop, creating a unique and moving style of music and helping to define a genre sometimes known as “folktronica.” At the same time, her music was also anchored in the strength and distinction of her voice, a voice that could be at once melancholy and resigned, conveying a sadness that often belied the tinge of hope that underscored many of her songs.
After several side projects and collaborations, including work with William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers, she finally released her first full-length record, the critically-acclaimed “Trailer Park,” in 1997. By the release of her next record, 1999′s “Central Reservation,” however, she had stripped away much of the electronica, favoring a more organic, acoustic sound. But Orton has never been what one would call prolific, having released just a handful of records since that time. Her latest release, “Sugaring Season,” is her first recording in six years.
From the spare, fingerpicked opening notes of “Magpie,” it is obvious that Orton is still at the top of her craft. As strings swell behind her she sings accusingly, telling a lover, “You’re what a lie looks like.” Her voice artfully conveys that feeling of anger and betrayal, and of standing one’s ground, as she sings the final line of the song: “Silence me and I won’t be here anymore.”
Orton is often known for her melancholia, yet she does upbeat quite well, too. The breezy “Dawn Chorus” is a perfect example, and features a guest vocal by Laura Veirs. Even the plinking piano waltz of the schmaltzy “See Through Blue,” a song she wrote for her daughter, is lively and enjoyable, whereas it might have easily come off as cloying and silly in the hands of someone less capable.
Although Orton’s career began around the time of Lilith Fair, a period that was particularly favorable to women artists, it is difficult to draw a comparison between her and her contemporaries. To begin, Orton is British and is not working in the Americana traditions of her American counterparts. Instead, she draws influence from the UK folk traditions, and from groups like Fairport Convention and Pentangle. In fact, Orton took lessons from Bert Jansch, guitarist of the latter band. His influence and tutelage are evident in the deft fingerpicking that anchors nearly every song on the record. And nowhere is that British folk influence more evident than on “Poison Tree,” a song adapted from the poem “A Poison Tree” by William Blake.
Orton makes all her tunes seem effortless as she glides from mood to mood across this record. From the haunted bitterness and anger of the opening track to the sweetness and simple beauty of the closer, “Mystery,” Orton shows she has continued to expand her musical spaces. She remains a quietly confident songwriter and record maker.