Tom Hocknell 2012-09-26 BBC Music
With her unique voice and songwriting, it was obvious that Norfolk-born Brit Award-winner Beth Orton would outlive the hedonism of the early 90s. It was at that time she first emerged, from the rave scene and through collaborations with William Orbit, The Chemical Brothers and Andrew Weatherall, who produced her 1996 album, Trailer Park.
Busy with new-motherhood, the ex-comedown queen has been quiet since 2006’s Comfort of Strangers, itself arriving after a prolonged absence and a parting of ways with the Heavenly label. Sugaring Season continues her drift away from the folktronica of her earlier work into more traditional alt-folk pastures. And the pastoral is a significant influence over the album, song titles alone sounding like headlines in the RSPB’s monthly newsletter.
Her instantly recognisable delivery remains unchanged. It’s warm, wrought, intimate or nasal, depending upon your view. Such a voice perhaps explains her limited mainstream success, but then the sublime often struggles.
With folk-hued fare riding enjoying mainstream popularity, this is an opportune moment for Orton’s return. Recorded in Portland, Oregon alongside My Morning Jacket producer Tucker Martine, it continues her almost unsettling course of introspection. It is mostly self-written, although Chemical Brother Tom Rowland co-writes the surging, catchy Call Me the Breeze.
The mysterious Magpie is a perfect opener, spellbinding the listener into Orton’s world, as her vocal spins a mesmerising trance, harmonising with strings and pulling you into a swamp-blues embrace that does not let go. If it were any more intimate, it would be sitting on your lap. The lullaby-like See Through Blue will stir any parents’ future hopes for their offspring.
Songs occasionally drift a little aimlessly: Something More Beautiful sacrifices mood for a tune. But when listened to at night, Orton’s unique voodoo pulls you closer and standouts, such as the elegant Candles, which tiptoes elegantly through the darkest of hours, become evident.
This delicacy was always the logical progression, and fans growing with Orton will find much to love about Sugaring Season. Her dance roots are now far behind her.