Album Review: Beth Orton, ‘Sugaring Season’

The new queen of British folk puts out a flinty and mysterious CD, her best yet


Tuesday, October 9, 2012, 6:00 AM.

Beth Orton’s new music finds beauty in what’s brittle. It’s scarred with scratchy fiddles, sharp acoustic guitars, and a voice both haunted and hesitant. It’s a perishable sound, one meant to be handled with care.

The quietly ravishing quality of the sound will make you want to do just that. While Orton has always made mysterious music, never has she created any as elusive and beguiling as this.

The British folk star first came to public attention in an unlikely way. Both William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers featured her wan, amber voice on their seminal, electronic-based dance recordings in the ’90s. The result birthed an entirely new hybrid: folktronica.

Orton extended elements of that sound on her first four solo albums, but she gradually lessened the synthetic quotient with each release. By her last disc, 2006’s “Comfort of Strangers,” she banished it entirely, an approach she continues on “Sugaring Season,” her first work in six years.

For the new disc, Orton stresses uncommonly dry acoustic guitars and ashy strings. To warm things slightly, she added fine layers of harmonium, pump organ and accordion.

In order to chisel and hone her guitar work, Orton studied with the U.K.’s late, great acoustic axman, Bert Jansch, who died last October. Jansch’s lessons helped Orton refine her style to create the crinkliest kind of arpeggios. Her picking style gives the album a flinty texture, mirrored in her vocal approach. Periodically, she’ll break her phrasing, leaving space between the words to vary the rhythm.

Orton’s new music draws on the witchy U.K. folk of Jansch’s prime band, Pentangle, but it’s in no way literal about it. While her folk may draw on the modalities of Celtic music, it honors no traditional restrictions. In that way, Orton, and the younger singer Laura Marling, have been doing more than anyone to make U.K. folk personal and new.

Orton’s voice can recall another innovator of Brit-trad music: In its windiness you hear the shadowy allure of Sandy Denny. Orton’s timbre recalls the throaty darkness of Bobbie Gentry, while her wildlest runs bring to mind Joni Mitchell on a faux Brit ballad like “The Fiddle and the Drum.”

It’s the ghostly quality of Orton’s voice that lets her bring off comparing herself to the elements in the song “Call Me the Breeze.” Images of nature run throughout the CD, and while Orton may look for truth in them, she ultimately finds only evasion. It’s an ideal mirror for Orton’s music. It’s a sound that’s open-ended, opaque and rice-paper fine.

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