As if being the poster girl for a convoluted sub-genre like folktronica weren’t bad enough, Beth Orton of Norfolk, England has also tried to live down (so far unsuccessfully) a phenomenal debut that was evidently a case of sheer timing — and quite possibly a baldfaced fluke. Her world-weary yet somehow still ingenuous voice — a seamless patchwork of the best Carole King and Rickie Lee Jones have to offer — has continued to be a pleasure, but has been increasingly overrun by bland compositions.
Orton entered the scene through the agency of artist-producer William Orbit, a man able to make even Madonna sound cool. Calling themselves Spill, the duo put out a single in ’92 (a cover of cult guitarist John Martyn’s “Don’t Wanna Know ‘Bout Evil”), with plans for a full-length album that evolved into Beth’s SuperPinkyMandy. A limited release for the Japanese market, the album collects ten Orbit-influenced soundscapes, including the Spill single and the first version of Orton’s signature tune, “She Cries Your Name” (which would resurface in different form on Orbit’s Strange Cargo series). After Spill was spent, she continued working with Orbit, and added memorably to tracks by the Chemical Brothers and Red Snapper, undertakings that made her something of a traveling big beat/acid jazz diva.
In ’96 she slowed down her guest-spot rotations to put out the introductory She Cries Your Name EP (re-released the following year with different songs) and the remarkable Trailer Park. Despite the sun-drenched cover shot, this is music for cloudy days. A unifying tone — as strong as any concept album around — makes even pretty ear candy like “Don’t Need a Reason” and “Sugar Boy” sound as perfectly sad as the mandolin-trimmed “Whenever” and the simple retelling of the Ronettes’ “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine.” For those in line for the trip-hop Beth’s known for, you’ll have some time to kill: producer/DJ Andrew Weatherall (Primal Scream, the Orb) steps in for three tracks of lingering beats (“Galaxy of Emptiness” being the best), but it’s delicate pop like “Someone’s Daughter” that fills the gaps. A new take on “She Cries Your Name” is the album’s apex, a faultless blend of acoustic picking, lush strings and Red Snapper’s Ali Friend on double bass. Only one minor flaw — the adult-contemporary plainness of “How Far” — keeps Trailer Park from being an impeccable masterpiece. (For those concerned with such details, the Weatherall credit for producing “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine” is erroneous: he produced “Galaxy of Emptiness.”)
Orton’s budding association with old-school Chicago folkie Terry Callier — a far cry from blip-masters like Orbit and Weatherall — guides the stopgap Best Bit EP. The two join forces (with help from Blow Monkey-turned-producer-Dr. Robert) for a retelling of Fred Neill’s “Dolphins” and Callier’s own “Lean on Me,” soulful numbers that are dreary as hell. Beth’s solo entries — “Best Bit” (produced by Youth) and “Skimming Stone” — fare much better as our normally dour Brit lass gets a smidge gritty while evoking the spirits of Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry. (The US issue features a live acoustic “Touch Me With Your Love” not found on the import.)
On Central Reservation, Orton attempts to shrug off this mortal ‘tronica and enter a middle-of-the-road netherworld. Bully to Beth for escaping over-hyped contemporary movements, but the album has only a portion of its predecessor’s personality. Restrained jazz-pop dominates the first half-dozen songs, but only the title track (produced by Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl) and “Sweetest Decline” wear it well. “Stolen Car” has a strong chorus and Ben Harper’s distinctive guitar to keep it going, but it still leaves little impact; “Pass in Time” is passionate, and Orton’s vocals (paired with Callier again) are well-fitted, but seven-plus minutes of it is ridiculous. After “Stars All Seem to Weep,” the lone drum ‘n’ bass track, Beth thankfully straps on the hollowbody and lets her folk muse flow, filling the rest of the disc (minus a synth-poppy remix) with laments both haunting and memorable. “Love Like Laughter” is the catchiest, but the dark vision of friendship gone afoul in “Blood Red River” — co-produced by yet another familiar name, David Roback of Mazzy Star — truly sticks and stays. In fact, the folk songs are almost enough to make one forget the meandering crap that came before. (Almost.)
Any amelioration of Central Reservation‘s missteps is erased by Daybreaker, which serves only to reinforce them. The maturation of Orton’s voice since her techno-waif days is not enough to cut through the Spectorish wash of sound in “Paris Train” or the completely forgettable soft rock in “Mount Washington.” High points, what few there are, mostly involve a new roster of guest stars. The straight pop of “Concrete Sky,” co-written by Johnny Marr, is enhanced by drummer Matt Johnson (54-40, Jeff Buckley) and Ryan Adams, who adds some piano and backing vocals. Adams also helps out the shuffling “Carmella” — which is downright peppy compared to the rest of the languid album — and the almost-gospel “God Song,” which throws Emmylou Harris into the mix. Orton does flash some of the old allure in “Thinking About Tomorrow,” but the rest of the disc, as tragic as it is for someone with her potential, is drab and hookless.
The Other Side of Daybreak compiles five remixes of Daybreaker selections (that are just as fascinating as the original boring messes), a disappointing version of the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child” and a you-can-guess-what-happens acoustic version of “Concrete Sky.” The only salvation comes from a few B-sides, especially the delicious swamp-folk of “Bobby Gentry,” taken from the Concrete Sky EP. Pass in Time, a seemingly premature best-of, offers a mere two songs from Daybreaker and the majority of Trailer Park (imagine that!). The two-disc set also has one unreleased song — “The Same Day” (titled “Wouldn’t You Too” in the US) — as well as a few more B-sides and a sampling of her work with the Chemical Brothers and Orbit. It’s a relatively useless collection, but just one listen to the gorgeous “Pedestal” (from Touch Me With Your Love) serves a reminder of how far Orton has come. If only she hadn’t taken that wrong turn…