Beth Orton Sugaring Season Anti-; 2012
By Grayson Currin PITCHFORK
In the realm of easy labels, Beth Orton is a singer-songwriter. After all, on the surface, her oeuvre is lined with heart-bent ballads and cautiously redemptive anthems, often played on acoustic guitar and backed by some sterling ensemble. In the late 90s, Orton toured with Lilith Fair, and she’s recorded with Ben Harper, Ryan Adams, and Jim O’Rourke, a triumvirate of readymade foils or complements for anyone with a six-string and a story to sing. But that’s not a representative sample, especially considering that Orton emerged in the mid-90s as the collaborative muse of producer William Orbit. Soon enough, she was supplying earworms for the first two Chemical Brothers albums. Built with songs that alternately seemed winsome or worried, and built on sounds both acoustic and digital, her solo records have historically genuflected to those broad enthusiasms. Orton has, at times, been sassy and romantic, wild and folky, puritanical and experimental– for better and worse, not at all circumscribed by the singer-songwriter tag. But Sugaring Season, Orton’s sixth full-length album and first since 2006’s sporadically interesting Comfort of Strangers, finds her perhaps more at ease with the tag of singer-songwriter than ever before. There are no unexpected detours or superfluous tangents, just 10 songs of sweet resilience delivered by a voice of seemingly effortless expression. What’s more, Orton’s assembled a team of selfless session players perfectly suited to the task. Like the titular magpie of the opening track, Orton’s collected some of the best musicians at work– guitarist Marc Ribot, violist Eyvind Kang, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and drummer Brian Blade, to sample– to help power this relative simplicity. They do exactly that, too, providing ballast and texture but rarely interfering with the sway of the songs. Ribot, for instance, plays electric guitar on two tunes. Rather than take a solo, he sticks to tasteful leads and fills, joining with Rob Burger’s piano on both songs to lift skyward. That’s sort of like asking Michael Jordan to run point guard or William Faulkner to write a press release; on Sugaring Season, Orton does well by restraining phenomenal technicians. Indeed, Sugaring Season depends upon a constancy that’s never before been Orton’s hallmark. From end to end, it feels like the work of a singer-songwriter with a definitive stylistic expectation and a supporting cast that can supply it. “State of Grace”, an ascendant acoustic number about forgetting and forgiveness, feels of a piece with “Call Me the Breeze”, a gorgeous mix of Bert Jansch ease and Harvest-era Neil Young glow. Tellingly, the latter is a co-write with Chemical Brother Tom Rowlands, but unless you’re checking liner notes, you’ll never detect the shift. At only two minutes, the string quartet-gilded piano waltz, “See Through Blue”, is the record’s clear musical outlier. But it maintains the same song-forward approach as the bulk of Sugaring Season, with Orton directing the band with her voice and not (as sometimes in the past) the other way around. The album’s most conspicuous guest, puckish folk singer Sam Amidon, supplies backing vocals on an ambitious rewrite of William Blake’s “Poison Tree”, and even he stays in line. Here, the enfant terribe tucks his voice behind Orton’s, simply making the gorgeous that much more so. Orton is most aggressive on “Candles”, a tense number about standing up to sadness and willing oneself forward. Despite its brooding strings and heavy drums, it maintains its grace, edges softened enough to let Orton extend an invitation, not a command. Sugaring Season isn’t exactly a mid- or late-career renaissance for Orton, at least in the sense that it will reveal her to a massive new set of listeners in the same way as Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel might. Its first single, after all, is a complicated, string-laced surge of a tune, lounging and roaring in miniature waves; it’s probably too strident to make good adult-contemporary fare, too mannered and traditionally lavish for more mainstream air. But after six years of silence, it’s a confident, cohesive album from a songwriter who sings, in one of the finest moments of her career, “I have tried to live each day as a last/ I have found life is long, and I’ve gone and got a past.” It’s a brilliant bit of elocution that acknowledges Orton’s eclectic history– her embrace and avoidance of singer-songwriter status and her laundry list of sometimes ill-advised collaborators– as a process of discovery that continues even now. As Orton nears her third decade of work, that’s an exciting abiding principle.