Beth Orton,
(Heavenly/EMI, 2002)

For those unfamiliar with Beth Orton's voice, think Natalie Merchant mixed with Janis Joplin. Then add in a bit of Everything But the Girl's Tracey Thorne and you'll have a pretty good notion of just how wonderful, emotive and soulful a singer Beth Orton is.

And in Daybreaker, Orton has delivered her most confident recording to date. This is only her third album since launching her solo career in 1996, so luckily it's an album you'll want to hear again and again while waiting for her next release.

The connection to Everything But the Girl is partly due to Ben Watt's involvement in the production of four tracks on Daybreaker. And even the tracks he doesn't participate in bear at least a passing resemblance to the style of instrumentation he's brought to the last few EBtG albums.

Another notable contributor to Daybreaker is Johnny Marr (formerly with the Smiths), who co-wrote "Concrete Sky." Emmylou Harris adds her distinctive vocals to "God Song," and Ryan Adams contributes the song "This One's Gonna Bruise," on which he also plays guitar.

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. It allows for tremendous subtlety, and thankfully Orton's emotional range is up to the task. "Do it to, before it's done unto you," she sings with casual cynicism on "Mount Washington" before calmly declaring, "And nobody can keep you from the one you know you are. Nobody to steal away your sway, the way you walk."

Truly there isn't a weak moment on Daybreaker. But my favorite songs include "This One's Gonna Bruise" for its musical simplicity and "God Song" for its blend of vocals and the lovely twisted lyric, "I'm praying for the strength not to carry on." I also have to acknowledge "Anywhere" and "Daybreaker" as the perfect synthesis of upbeat dance club electronics and downbeat plaintive vocals. Extraordinary!

I have only one significant complaint about Daybreaker. While the song lyrics and production credits are all included with the disc, they are nearly impossible to read. The layout is perhaps the most user-unfriendly I've run across. And given that this is an album you'll want to sing along with, prepare to go mad attempting to discern the tiny type. But don't let this dissuade you from picking up Daybreaker. The music is worth going mad for.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 17 April 2004

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