Beth Orton,
Comfort of Strangers
(EMI, 2006)

Beth Orton's Daybreaker album, released in 2002, is one of my favorite albums of the past decade. That fact, combined with the nearly four-year wait that preceded the January release of Comfort of Strangers, leads to my having very high expectations for this new disc -- expectations that, unfortunately, have not been fully met.

Orton and bassist/producer Jim O'Rourke have taken a significantly different production tack than was used on Daybreaker. Gone are the atmospheric keyboards and Euro-trance stylings that Ben Watt employed four years back. In their place, a more traditional folk/rock assemblage of instruments fails to create as strong an impression. As I wrote in my review of Daybreaker, "what really works on this disc is the slightly cold, sterile atmosphere that the use of electronics lends to the instrumentation. This allows Orton's acoustic guitar and, more importantly, her vocals to dance across the music bed with every nuance of her emotions exposed."

Orton's new songs, set against the warmer tones of guitar and piano, feel flatter than Daybreaker's tracks. But it's not simply the choice of instrumentation that has leveled the musical topography of the Comfort of Strangers album. Much of the disc's flatness is a result of the lack of dynamic range O'Rourke has employed in the mixes. On many of the songs all of the instruments seem to have been given precisely equal weighting, every fader on the soundboard set to the same mark. The drums in particular feel too far forward in the mix on songs like "Rectify" and "Heart of Soul."

Most of the songs that manage to elevate themselves and leave a lasting impression do so through spare arrangements and a more subtle use of percussion. The album's title track employs brushes and a single high-hat rather than a full drum kit, and the song benefits tremendously. "Pieces of Sky" relies on a single piano chord per bar to accompany Orton's vocal for half the song. And even when the remaining instruments join the mix the arrangement is spartan, an ideal backdrop to Orton's raspy voice.

On the flip side of this equation is "Conceived," a track on which the production manages to bury any luster this catchy melody might have held under a cornucopia of competing instruments. Orton's vocals end up fighting against an onslaught of guitar, bass, piano, drums, background vocals, violin, viola, cello and even a zither. It's a losing battle and so a tremendous relief when the following song, "Absinthe," reigns back the instrumentation. Here, in a classic "less is more" scenario, a weaker song manages to overpower a stronger one through artistic economy and a soulfully played harmonica.

Comfort of Strangers does contain some very good tracks. "Shopping Trolley" evokes memories of Marianne Faithful's signature melancholia, "I think I'm gonna cry, but I'm gonna laugh about it all in time." "Shopping Trolley" is the only track on which I feel the dominance of the drums in the mix actually works particularly well. There's an energy in the percussion that provides a wonderful counterpoint to the vocal delivery.

"Heartland Truckstop" is another gem of a song, filled with quirkily clever lyrics. "I wanted to love and I turned round and hated it ... Taking flights of indifference 'cross a wide screen sky, could feel so alive you might think that you had died." The melody and arrangement provide a jaunty juxtaposition to the downcast mood of the lyrics. The result is completely engaging.

Over the course of 14 songs, however, the monotone stylistic rendering of Orton's latest offering is a significant stumbling block. Comfort of Strangers takes too much comfort in sameness to be a worthy follow up to Daybreaker. So while Orton fans will certainly revel in the fractured beauty of this release, despite its unimpressive production, those who are unfamiliar with this talented songstress would be better off discovering the wonders of Daybreaker before picking up this new disc.

One final note, for a few extra dollars there's a two-disc version of Comfort of Strangers that includes a pair of demo tracks, an alternative take on the title track, presented as a duet, and two additional finished songs. "What We Begin" and "On My Way Home" are sufficiently lovely pieces that I'm glad I forked over the extra cash.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
6 May 2006

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