Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Beth Orton. I’ve got all four of her previous albums and saw her in concert a few years back at First Avenue. That is your warning that this review is on the more obsessive classic-compare/contrast side than a lot of the other reviews I have written recently. Its been six years since the last Orton album and I am hungry for her work. I’ve been listening to this album on repeat for the last six hours.
The basics are as follows: The album is titled Sugaring Season, is ten songs long, and last 37 minutes. This album would be right at home on a vinyl platter. More acoustic and stripped down overall than most of her previous work, Sugaring Season finds Orton casting about for a style to call home. All vestiges of the William Orbit and The Chemical Brothers collaborations are long gone.
As the album is so varied and I am now into the obsessive vein of picking things apart, let’s spend some time talking about the individual tracks, shall we?
Opening the album is the strong “Magpie”. This track would find itself at home on some more mature version of Central Reservation. Beth’s vocals carry more weight in this track that a lot of her previous work. The rhythm of the second track, “Dawn Chorus”, really harkens back to Trailer Park. The natural lilting delivery Orton uses works to perfection here. Familiar drum sounds and violins are at play in her familiar singer/songwriter neighborhood.
“Candles” is a stern let down. Orton sings too fast and is straining her voice through the whole song.
“Something More Beautiful” is where the album comes off the rails for me. The punchy, uneven, swelling orchestral backing only amplifies what sounds to me like a drunken delivery by Orton.
“Call Me the Breeze” is almost a throw away. It is shockingly simple in terms of both music and lyrics. Substandard for what Orton usually brings to the table. If there was more punch to it, this could be an out take from Central Reservation.
But there is hope! “Poison Tree” swings the album back to what we have come to expect and is very good indeed. The instrumentation, vocal delivery (a harmonic duet in places), and tonality of this cut all owe something to Joni Mitchell in a good way.
The strangest excursion on the album is “See Through Blue”. It reminds me of what Annie Lennox did by tossing “Young and Beautiful” on the end of Diva, but with less biting commentary. It’s a two minute waltz. To further push the difference, most of the other songs on the album are introspective lamentations, but not this one. At this point Sugaring Season starts to reminds me of the Gretchen Lieberum album When This Kiss Is Over It Will Start Again and how much different that album was than her previous astounding effort Siren Songs. I make that comparison because the passion I have for Orton’s Daybreaker is equal to that of Lierberum’s Siren Songs. Both are strictly amazing and undiminished by the confusing stylistic shift of later works.
“Last Leaves of Autumn” is a fantastically moody and touching piece built around the piano as main instrument. This cut is the solid ground where Orton is at her best, along the lines of “Mount Washington” or “Galaxy of Emptiness”. In terms of flowing instrumentation and soul in the lyrics, this is the strongest cut on the album.
“State of Grace” and “Mystery” finish the album off. These two tracks harken most closely to the Orton we are familiar with and would be at home on Comfort of Strangers or Trailer Park. “Mystery” is Orton, an acoustic guitar and a violin.
Summation: Orton displays a new maturity and growing repertoire of style but at times in Sugaring Season her voice isn’t up to it. She has never made the same album twice, but this one is a bit far afield for me to be in love with. Yes, we could hang out and watch movies together, but we aren’t getting hot and heavy in the back seat of a car, this album and I. This one certainly has a central theme of grounded introspection but doesn’t hang together as an album as well. This is a natural outflow from Comfort of Strangers to be sure and has some real stand out cuts (“Magpie”, “Last Leaves of Autumn”, and “Poison Tree”). I would give the album a B-.
A really great fan page with lyrics, discography, etc, is http://beth-orton.net/
-Cory Funk, The Funkomaticjamatron Presents… Thursdays, 5-6 pm