In a recent New York Times article, Beth Orton was roped into a group of female musicians dubiously titled “the sad slacker divas.” But with her fifth and latest album, Comfort of Strangers, this hardly rings true. With the help of producer Jim O’Rourke (of former Sonic Youth and Wilco fame), Orton has returned to her folky, lo-fi ambitions that were absent in 2002’s largely disappointing Daybreaker. Relatively well-known for her graceful merging of trip-hop rhythms with an organic vocal delivery, in this latest outing Orton has instead chosen to stick to a more predictable approach: inoffensive atmospherics offset by Orton’s frequently hilarious and smart songwriting.
Orton’s velvety, rich voice is the clear prize of Comfort of Strangers. Although the straightforward, folky arrangements tend to be unexciting (including the hokey use of a harmonica in “Absinthe”), Orton’s vocals are immediately captivating. Squeezing into the already bloated genre of “female singer-songwriter,” Orton has established herself as a pleasant medium – less awkward than Cat Power but more alternative than Norah Jones.
Comfort of Strangers shows certain promise, but as a product of a brief two week recording session, some tracks are only seeds of ideas, resulting in a lackluster, even ambivalent, outcome. The rollicking percussion of “Rectify” inexplicably switches to a swaying half-time rhythm, halting the momentum Orton had so effortlessly built with her meaty, evocative voice. The sparse ballad “Feral Children” also begins promisingly, but ends with sweeping strings that place the track firmly within sentimentality and overproduction. Indeed, many of the tracks veer into the dangerous territory of easy listening like the pseudo-jazzy vibe of “Conceived,” and overstate her aim for a relaxed ambience.
Not all is a misstep into the well-worn territory of Norah Jones. In the ballad “Safe in Your Arms,” muted, understated drums and an unexpectedly nostalgic accordion are a lovely enhancement to Orton’s melancholy lyrics (“Home is where the heart breaks”) and pitch-perfect, bittersweet singing (her lovely British accent is especially apparent). Although album closer “Pieces of Sky” begins lethargically, the dirge-like piano chords climax and swell alongside Orton’s naked singing and heartbreaking lyrics (“an invisible kite string connects me to you”).
Like her contemporaries Laura Veirs or Kathleen Williams, Orton constructs modest yet compelling folk-pop landscapes, but since the debut of her 1996 cult album Trailer Park, Orton has begun to show signs of age. As strong as her songwriting has been, Orton, in her older age, occasionally stumbles into clich