When Beth Orton released her first album a decade ago she was an early designer of a delicious niche: folktronica. A student of William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers, the descendant of Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny, Orton straddled the trip-hop scene and the traditional folk world with a wonderful absence of flair. Effortlessly earthy, sublimely ambient, and utterly fresh-sounding, she was a singer-songwriter for the digital age.
Ten years later Orton is just a singer-songwriter -- and how odd it's been to watch a wildly promising artist move steadily toward convention. ''Trailer Park," her debut, was a marvel of emotional warmth and chill dance beats. The 1999 release ''Central Reservation" was lighter on electronica but remained faithful to the piquant spirit of its predecessor, even as it embraced a more spartan aesthetic. ''Daybreaker," which arrived three years later, was just dour. ''Comfort of Strangers," in stores today, isn't nearly as downbeat, but something worse: banal.
Recorded in two weeks with producer and multi-instrumentalist Jim O'Rourke, Orton's fourth album is often lovely but never gripping -- especially curious considering O'Rourke is an adjunct member of Sonic Youth toasted for his adventurous work with Wilco. The disc kicks off with ''Worms," a darkly jaunty song that evokes Fiona Apple, moves on to sweet, simple ''Countenance" -- where a pair of happy chords lope along pleasantly enough in an uncomplicated midtempo that colors the entire collection -- and reaches the peak of pleasantry by track three, ''Heartland Truck Stop," a well-organized and vaguely historic-sounding tune that would be well-suited to a rural Maypole dance.
If Orton hadn't already set the bar so high, ''Comfort of Strangers" might well be graciously received into the singer-songwriter canon. But admirers can't help but measure it against earlier achievements, and Orton's limits as a songwriter are in bold relief here. Her gift for melody and structure has never matched the force of her voice, a cracked, teetering instrument that finds strength in the sheer act of pressing through its own fragility. Orton still sings beautifully, but gives herself precious little to work with in the pedestrian changes of the title track, or on ''Conceived," the album's first single, which veers distressingly close to the bland fare of David Gray -- another singer-songwriter who's lately lost touch with
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his early spark. When Orton's band shifts to an unexpected chord on ''Absinthe," it feels wildly, disproportionately poignant.
There are a handful of such moments. ''Shopping Trolley" blows in like a fuzzed-out slice of folk-rock sunshine, and it's as if the sky has cracked open and Orton has dropped down to grace us in her elegant, scattershot glory. And on ''Heart of Soul," when Orton pushes into an uncomfortably high register, we share the burden, the triumph, and the reward: a vehement and glorious sawing of violins.
Elsewhere she (and we) remain in a comfort zone: placid, forgiving, uneventful. Judging by the lyrics, which wrestle poetically with a romantic disappointment, it's exactly where Orton needs to be in her life and her music. Here's hoping she doesn't have to stay long.