Friday, October 05, 2012
Not exactly the most prolific of recording artists Beth Orton has returned after a six year hiatus with her fifth studio recording: "Sugaring Season". The title doesn't refer to visits to her nearest waxing studio for her legs or lady garden but apparently its a reference to the time of year in New England and Canada when maple syrup is collected. I say fifth rather than sixth because her first album was only available in Japan.
Whether you like this album or not will be heavily influenced by whether or not you like Beth's voice. She doesn't have a particularly strong voice and sometimes in the past it has sounded a little too weak to be honest to be able to carry songs that were perhaps crying out for something a little stronger.
Her back catalogue, despite consisting of only four albums, peaked with that 'difficult second album' - Central Reservation which had followed the much acclaimed Trailer Park. The title track of Central Reservation always drew cries of 'yeeeww' from the back seat of our car should it appear during a family drive, simply because of the open lines, "Running down a central reservation in last nights red dress, And I can still smell you on my fingers and taste you on my breath".
After Central Reservation Beth's career seemed to stall on Daybreaker (2002), which despite having some good individual moments didn't quiet hang together as a career progression. Next up, and the predecessor to Sugaring Season, was Comfort of Strangers which seemed to act as a musical defibrillator to a promising career that was slowly passing away.
The big question then after six years was how would the new album sound? Well the good news is that it's a return to the form of albums 1,2 and 4. Despite being English born and bred Beth has adopted a mid-Atlantic sound in her voice and this album was recorded in Portland, Oregon, which is probably as far as you can get from the mid-Atlantic and still remain on the U.S mainland (Alaska excluded).
The album is best when the tracks are driven forward by her band, less wispy and more hirsute if you like. The album owes a debt to the late, influential English guitarist Bert Jansch who was giving Beth guitar lessons whilst she was pregnant with her daughter and whilst the synths of her first two albums may have gone the strings used on this album, particularly at the end of the third track 'Candles' evoke memories of her earlier career.
'Call Me The Breeze' wouldn't have sounded out of place on Anna Calvi's debut album and the one thing that occurs to me listening to this album is how much the book of the English female singer-songwriters scene has changed over the six years between her albums. Adele has replaced Annie Lennox as the favourite for all female categories on the Brit Awards list, Polly Jean Harvey has reinvented herself as a singer of songs about the contemporary English landscape and Jessie J and Ellie Goulding have replaced Lily Allen and the late Amy Winehouse as writers of quality pop songs and that's without looking at the long list of female singers involved in the resurgent folk scene.
'Poison Tree' is the William Blake poem 'A Poison Tree' arranged for voice, guitar, piano and bass and then expanded. The lines : "And it grew both day and night, Till it bore an apple bright. And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine," sounds great set to music.
'See Through Blue' is almost cod-Dietrich, it sounds like a thousand other songs whilst sounding like none in particular. 'Last Leaves of Autumn' showcases Beth's voice as we had come to know and love it on those first two albums, shifting between strength and vulnerability without eliciting pathos, the bass guitar, violin and piano accompanying her voice are quite beautiful. 'State of Grace' and 'Mystery' close what is a welcome return to form, the former is a defiant message with Beth singing that she would do the same thing again whilst the latter is simply a beautiful English folk song referencing the cries of Molly Malone wheeling her barrow to the accompaniment of a violin and guitar .
At the start of her career Beth was known as 'the come down queen' as those first two albums were regarded as perfect 2 a.m listening when the party was over and all that was left was the washing up and the need to move the lounge furniture back into place, not muzak exactly but something that didn't need a sober head to appreciate. This album is different, she hasn't quite recorded an album that will serve as a suitable accompaniment to a lengthy road trip but neither is it best served in the early hours whilst retrieving those empty bottles from next doors hedge.
The video for 'Magpie', the albums opening track
Posted by Paul at 11:00 AM