A while back, Beth Orton, the winningly gloomy 28-year-old English folkie, managed the odd trick of somehow impressing ravers. “Once Beth Orton was indie strummer, chemical sister and- yawn -The Comedown Queen,” The Face recently explained in its February issue, referring to Ms. Orton’s calming appearances on the Chemical Brothers’ manic Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole albums. Ms. Orton played folk music, yes, but she was still One Of Them in the ways that counted, an unfettered end-of-the-century striver making music at a time when the last thing that might restrict a musical artist was mere genre. With her almost medieval preoccupations, her Mike Leigh prole affinities and her High Street urban Hal Hartley style, Ms. Orton and her acclaimed 1997 Trailer Park debut seemed to be, as hip-hoppers say, “keeping it real.” Coaxing Shirley Bassey to come out of retirement for a guest appearance, pulling off the clever glam resurrections, well, Propellerheads were into that.
But for all its intelligent appeal, Ms. Orton’s core focus on Trailer Park seemed too hard to discern in the way that, say, Jewel leaves a listener in no doubt that intimate communication is her chief aim, or Everything But The Girl never obscure their goals of making complexities float. Was Ms. Orton a British Natalie Merchant, discussing issues in her songs as unstoppably as Bruce Springsteen? Or was she in fact a sound-girl like Björk, offering up the spectacular tone of her folk-rock voice as part of electronica’s frisky arsenal of effects? One thing was clear: She wasn’t (and isn’t) some Lilith Fair interloper interested in, as Spin writer Charles Aaron once smiled, “music to moisturize to.” Yet perhaps Ms. Orton, in line with young American men like Elliott Smith or Duncan Sheik or Beck, viewed herself as the inheritor of a 70’s-sired singer-songwriter tradition in dire need of reinvention. Or maybe she was just a Fairport Convention freak. With Trailer Park , which sold 150,000 copies in America, you just didn’t know.
Things get clarified on her new album, Central Reservation (Arista-Deconstruction). Opening with “Stolen Car,” a big rock groove outlined by Ted Barnes’ acoustic and Ben Harper’s very electric guitars, Ms. Orton’s voice takes full charge. Her singing is uncommonly allusive, a pretty astonishing consolidation of older singers and her own knotty flow. You hear echoes of Marianne Faithfull’s frayed nerves and edges, Joan Armatrading’s stout authority, Dusty Springfield’s lipstick sensuality, Nico’s aloof concentrations, not to mention the traditional moorings of Linda Thompson and Sandy Denny. If that sounds like a heavy load of influences, well, it is. “Stolen Car”-in which she delivers lines like “It’s harder to hide while you’re itching your eyes,” and a near-refrain that runs “Why should you know better by now when you’re old enough not to?”-seems to land, finally, on Ms. Orton’s rush to discover her “place in the world.” But the piece is really about the unusual sound she creates working through all this, not the individual lyrical components. It’s folk rock that has the tenacity of a rave track.
That opener is followed by a soaring torch song, “Sweetest Decline,” a well-detailed slow melody scored to small orchestra with New Orleans’ Dr. John paying his respects to Burt Bacharach’s unhammy piano style. Ms. Orton takes the bassackward approach of an electronica artist redoing John Barry: Instead of singing the song with the interpretive deliberation and narrative inevitability of a rocker emoting through a ballad-think Mick Jagger dramatizing every emotional syllable and heartbreaking domestic zigzag of “Wild Horses”-she shoots for mood, more Peggy Lee than Chrissie Hynde, a surface so rich it blooms into pure substance. “Another day wastes away,” she sings, “and my heart sets with the sun.” But then despite the song’s deliberate, lilting tempo, Ms. Orton’s voice jets off elsewhere. “What’s the use in regrets?” she wonders. “They’re just things we haven’t done yet.” The piece ends with her catching snow on her tongue.
In the album’s best moment, Ms. Orton shows her electronic hand. Working with producer Victor Van Vugt, an old Nick Cave hand, she soon eases into a midtempo percussive seduction called “Couldn’t Cause Me Harm,” where her singing functions in the mix as a sort of lead Shakespearean synth line. This is pop music as massage and caress, a brilliant mesh of Ms. Orton’s subtle little melodies with lyrics like “I can feel the heart, ‘specially when it’s on the roof of my mouth,” all climbing through a groove whose envelope she keeps perfectly sealed with her phrasing. The track, at base, may be little more than Sade in a Chevy, but the way she applies her voice to it is something else again.
Those three opening pieces set the pace for the rest of Central Reservation . The next three songs-“So Much More,” “Pass in Time,” and the “original version” of the dour but upbeat title track-explore folk stasis and “keeping it real” in ways that will seem more or less successful whatever one’s tolerance for the unadorned. On “Stars All Seem to Weep,” Ms. Orton teams with Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt for more upfront drum-‘n’-bass-inflected fireworks. Mr. Watt, a pioneer in the area of fitting club music to more established pop styles, does a bang-up job, letting the track dig some pretty serious Jamaican holes. His climactic remix of “Central Reservation (The Then Again Version)” at the end of the album flies, emphasizing Ms. Orton’s kaleidoscopic lines. “Today,” she explains in the song, “is whatever I want it to mean.” That’s the winning side of Ms. Orton’s gloominess, and therein lies her unusual artistic poise.
Central Reservation , like a million tedious singer-songwriter albums, is on one level all about the way Ms. Orton sees and feels, you know, life . It’s not easy to get a handle on, but it sounds good. Her trick, easier (by design) to feel than to grasp, is to make you hear her impressions in unaccustomed ways. She sees how Richard and Linda Thompson, or Fairport Convention, for that matter, just kind of raved on, too. It turns out the Comedown Queen isn’t someone to yawn about.