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Comfort of Strangers – Beth Orton

Astralweks 49847

With three albums, two EPs and compilations to her credit, Beth Orton created works that reflected a life that immersed itself in everything from folk to rock to hip-hop to electronica. On Comfort of Strangers, she decided to take a more simple approach to her material, and the result is simply stunning.

It helps if you like, I mean, really like Orton’s voice. She has a tone that sounds like an angel who came down from heaven and grew up in Nashville listening to Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake records. In the minimalist production of Strangers her vocals are mixed prominently over the sparse and limber instrumentation. It works because her melodies charm the song along. I admit that this should shine a brighter light on the lyrics but I didn’t even pay much attention to Orton’s words until several listens in because the pieces of this musical puzzle fit together so nicely that I just rode with it again and again. When I paid attention, the verses unfolded to show an acknowledgement that the facts of life things don’t always come out as hoped but she holds on to the lifeline of future possibilities.

The only time that this method backfires is on “Shopping Trolley,” where the wonderful pop instrumentation that wouldn’t be too far removed from one of the thousand or so songs put out by Robert Pollard, solo or with Guided By Voices, is literally submerged to (possibly) keep in tune with the other 13 tracks.

No matter. It’s the overall approach on “Strangers” that draws you in and makes it so valuable. It’s a grey day record that’s suitable for any day of the week. The press kit talks of one and two-take sessions and the recordings do have that loose feel of musicians in a small room playing, listening and polishing the final product. This could be used as an example of what critics mean when they talk of an “intimate” album and the importance of allowing space in one’s music. Tracks such as “Countenance,” “Rectify” and “Conceived” are just shining examples of this approach, lightly intersecting notes of plucked guitar notes, bass, and drums or percussion.

Like the Academy Awards, it seems almost dangerous to put out something so good at the beginning of the year. I hope that the sounds of Comfort of Strangers aren’t too far from my stereo when I’m putting together a Best Of 2006 list. If so, then shame on me.

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