Thursday, February 16, 2006

Beth Orton/Comfort of Strangers/7.2

So it's nice to have the old Beth Orton back. It's also nice to have Jim O'Rourke at the helm,

CD artwork and liner notes are good things. In fact, sometimes record buyers have an edge over reviewers in this regard. Advance copies don’t always come with liner notes and art; often the art is still being completed at that point. It’s one more argument for buying the actual package rather than getting a digital copy. Besides, it’s okay to have a wholesome crush on that cute guy or gal who works at your local record store.

I found that the credits on Beth Orton’s Comfort of Strangers answered a lot of questions for me. For one thing, I was a little concerned when I heard that Jim O’Rourke was producing the album. Many of my Y’all-ternative friends blame O’Rourke’s dense production for ruining Wilco for them. While I like those records (and O’Rourke’s solo stuff), I was a little concerned how he’d handle Orton’s songs. Looking at the instrumental credits (and listening to the tracks), I’m pleased with the outcome. O’Rourke has let Beth Orton’s voice shine through and complimented it with minimal instrumentation. On the title track, O’Rourke adds slightly more dense arrangements, but still shows considerable restraint – accenting with a marimba here, a little flourish of keyboards there. According to a recent interview in Harp with Beth Orton, she decided to work with O’Rourke based on his promise to put her voice at the forefront. After listening to the record, I would have to say that O’Rourke has accomplished that mission.

In terms of songwriting, there’s not much surprising - a quick spin through the lyrics lays out a list of songs about new love, current love and past love. If you’re looking for clever love songs, I’d recommend Jens Lenkman over Beth Orton. However, Orton definitely wins in terms of feeling and sincerity as well as using enough craft to keep things interesting. Orton even co-wrote a couple of the songs with M. Ward – Comfort of Strangers and Shopping Trolley. See, I wouldn’t have known that without the insert.

If you’re a Beth Orton fan (or better still an M. Ward fan as well), the limited edition of this record is worth the extra scratch. The bonus disc includes six tracks that Beth Orton recorded with M. Ward – including a version of the title track with M. Ward singing a couple of the lines. Orton’s record label rejected these initial tracks but they’re an interesting look at the process Orton went through to put this record together. I’m glad that Orton went with O’Rourke rather than M. Ward as her main collaborator for this record. However, the rough, simple charm of these tracks does provide an interesting contrast to the main record.

The only thing that kinda bothered me about the insert was the prolifereation of little hand drawn hearts amidst the lyrics. However, Beth Orton is credited with doing the interior illustrations, so at least it's not the label's attempt at making her seem more sugary. If Beth hearts her listeners, I guess we can heart her back.

Musically, the PFM review is on the mark. I might-could bump this up a half point, but I don’t feel inclined to make a fuss about it. If you enjoyed Cat Power’s latest (or the latest Fiona Apple), this record should be in your hot little hands. If you’re an M. Ward fan, hunt down the limited edition – I bet that attractive person behind the counter of your local record store would be happy to help you.