In one of those countless musical small world stories, a young Beth Orton was brought by her mother to see Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean in their hometown of Norfolk in the East of England. A close friend of Orton’s mother joined them, and was so taken by MacLean that she pursued and eventually married him.
Orton only marginally used MacLean as an influence early in her own career as a musician. Prior to releasing her first album, Trailer Park, in 1996, she worked with ambient-techno musician William Orbit, Primal Scream’s Andrew Innes, and the Chemical Brothers. Through it all she kept a folksy vibe in her music, which caused some in the London media to dub her music “trip-folk.”
Whatever the label, Trailer Park and its magnificent follow-up, 1999’s Central Reservation, perfectly blended folk, rock, electronica, and a light sprinkling of jazz into a perfect potion. Critics and fellow musicians heaped on the praise; Beck, another master of mixing genres, reportedly told her “my songs are all elbows, but your songs are soft cheeks.”
Two more albums saw her eschewing the drum machines and keyboards and focusing on the folk. Now she gives us Sugaring Season, her first record in six years, and the “folktronica” is gone completely, replaced by simple acoustic guitars and a multitude of strings. While it’s an uneven record, the high points greatly outnumber the low.
While Dougie MacLean may not have been an influence early on in Orton’s career, the comparison is apt now, as are comparisons to Sandy Denny and even Dusty Springfield. The opening song, “Magpie,” sets the tone. Starting out with just a finger-plucked guitar and Orton’s gorgeous voice (she quit smoking prior to the birth of her first child in 2006, and it shows) the song builds with drums and strings, and finally a soaring violin that calls back to Trailer Park’s leadoff track, “She Cries Your Name.” “Candles” is a soft, haunting number with perfectly arranged strings that would fit in on the live album that Portishead recorded with the New York Philharmonic. Orton’s husband, folk singer Sam Amidon, joins her (though doesn’t overpower her) on the beautiful “Poison Tree,” a William Blake poem that’s set to a foreboding guitar reminiscent of Orton’s “Blood Red River” on Central Reservation. It’s easy to picture the poem being presented in a similar way in the 18th Century. “Last Leaves of Autumn” has a jazzy feel to it; Orton has said that she and producer Tucker Martine were going for a sound similar to Roberta Flack’s debut First Take on this record, and they find it here.
While most of the songs have a quiet beauty, some, unfortunately, suffer from a lack of personality. “State of Grace” sounds vaguely like “Concrete Sky” from 2003’s Daybreaker (through refreshingly free of Ryan Adams). The meandering “Call Me the Breeze” plays like an acoustic version of the U2/Johnny Cash stinkbomb “The Wanderer;” a peppy organ sprinkled throughout the song serves only to bring it down. And while it’s only two minutes long, “See Through Blue” sounds like it was written for a 1940s French cartoon or the worst part of a cheesy musical.
But the good outweighs the bad. Orton has apparently moved away from any hint of electronica but a little rock here and there – “Stolen Car” from Central Reservation comes to mind - would be welcome. Overall, however, Sugaring Season is a welcome return from a wonderfully innovative singer/songwriter.