She used to be known as the comedown queen. You’d spend the whole night spazzed off your baps on magic monkey juice, stagger home in the wee hours, whack on Trailer Park and watch the sun rise as the quack handle wore off. Remember?
After two albums of highly successful tripfolktronica, Beth Orton hit a low-point with 2002’s Daybreaker. The cover itself appeared unadventurously similar to her debut’s. Photographed with her chin resting on her hands, she looked chronically bored, a mood confirmed by the music. Produced with a mish-mash of uninspired/uninspiring collaborators, Orton seemed unsure of the direction she wanted to take, an indecision which managed to distract her from writing any good songs.
Far stronger was 2006’s Comfort of Strangers on which she finally dropped the synthesised elements that were no longer working to plunge fully into the realm of folkishness. Stronger still is Sugaring Season.
Orton’s appeal hinges on whether or not you like her voice. For some it remains too wispy, too nothingy; as appealing as a warm glass of weak, frothy Ribena. For fundamentalist Ortonites, it possesses an irresistible, bruised fragility. Though probably not significantly enough to convert the weak-Ribena faction, her voice is now richer and more versatile than ever.
A delightful voice cannot thrive without decent songs, however, and in the six-year gap since her last album Orton has been hard at work. Before his death, she was having weekly guitar lessons with the amazing Bert Jansch and as a result of the discipline that comes with parenthood she has been writing every day. Orton’s tribute to her daughter, ‘See Through Blue’, avoids potential mawkishness by taking the form of a short and slightly odd waltz. ‘Something More Beautiful’, meanwhile, has all the yearning sadness you want from an Orton record, complimented by the occasional interruption of some surprisingly (and almost aggressively) dramatic strings.
The hours she has put into writing the songs is in evidence, yet Orton’s been careful not to lose all sense of spontaneity. The album cut of ‘Candles’ captures a rehearsal take while her band were still learning the song, unaware of being recorded. I mean, it doesn’t sound like a ramshackle Pavement practice or the No-Neck Blues Band or anything, but it does possess a certain rough(ish) impulsiveness.
Even though the electronic textures of her early work have been dropped, there are strange echoes of them floating within the organic accompaniment. The strings of ‘Magpie’ do their best to imitate a swirling, shimmering synth. Jazz drummer Brian Blade’s beats urge the rest of the band to rise above generic folk patterns. The ghosts of youthful pursuits haunt the sound of domestic motherhood.
Sure, the “ba-ba-ba”s that bring ‘Dawn Chorus’ to a close might sound a little inane to some ears and there are a couple of tracks that risk floating by unnoticed, veering into overly polite Radio 2 territory. But then we all have a little bit of Radio 2 in us somewhere... don’t we?
It’s a Sunday morning record all right. Perhaps all her records are. But it’s certainly not a Sunday morning after a sleepless night with a splitting headache from being off your mash on yellow bentines. On the Sunday morning I first spun it, I was cleaning the oven while brewing a pot of coffee, looking forward to catching up with The Great British Bake Off on iPlayer. As a line about life going far too fast from the mournful ‘Last Leaves of Autumn’ drifted across the kitchen it struck me that Orton remains a 'comedown queen' of sorts. She’s soundtracking her/my/your/our comedown from youth itself. On Sugaring Season she captures both the melancholy and the confidence that comes with growing older really rather well.
7J.R. Moores's Score