Some, including the star herself, thought the day would never come, but Beth Orton is back and touring a new record…
Some ten years or so ago (’99, we think), a proto Double Negative editor found himself backstage at Reading Festival (in the capacity of ligger only). At the table next to us were Gaz Coombes, Danny Goffey (of Supergrass) and Pearl Lowe (Powder/Lodger) – a relatively big deal to us back then. Propping up the bar were a number of sleb DJs and journos; we were quietly thrilled of course, if not blown away.
A beer or so later and, much as we expect it is with Spidey and his knack for sensing danger, our cultural capital-ometer kicked in. It kicked in strong. The reason wasn’t the mini MTV presenter of the time, Sarah Cawood, either. In our periphery we could see a Converse and jeans-clad girl, not trying in any way to appear cool, yet accomplishing that state effortlessly. It was Beth Orton, touring second album Central Reservation.
The reason for shamelessly mentioning our relatively close proximity to Orton is twofold. Firstly, she remains the only person we’re yet to meet who absolutely exudes star quality (whatever that means). Secondly it’s a loose way to establish that, back then, with two albums under her belt this was an artist whose star seemed irresistibly on the rise.
She first came to national attention three years earlier in 1996 with debut LP Trailer Park. A mostly plaintive and thoughtful record, it spawned few singles. Lacking genuine foot-tappers it may have been, but it marked Orton out as a talent to watch and an innovator, fusing as it did folk elements with modern electronica and trip-hop.
While trip-hop and folk are hardly the most obvious bedfellows, nor is Beth Orton your ordinary musician. Her first – pre-Trailer Park – movements into the industry came through collaborations with artists from the electro and dance end of the spectrum, rather than traditional guitar music. Working with the likes of William Orbit and The Chemical Brothers, Orton began to find her way.
Following the modest commercial success of her debut, Orton returned three years later with Central Reservation. While hardly a wild lurch in any particular direction – the second record was more about stylistic consolidation – Central Reservation established the Norfolk-born Orton in the hearts and minds of critics and fans alike, the album reaching number 17 in the UK charts. After another three year gap, in 2002 came Daybreaker, considered by many to be her best work yet.
A four year wait between Daybreaker and Comfort of Strangers was accompanied by an even greater absence. The period coincided with Orton becoming a mother, getting married and considering packing it all in (due in no small part to the cancellation of her contract with label EMI). Interviewed last year by the Observer, she said: “I think most people in the industry thought I had run my course, and I started to believe that too, I think. I was like ‘Er, OK, goodbye, I’ll be off now, I’ll just be over here if you need me again ever.’ I was sort of relieved to be let go. I knew they weren’t in love with me, so it felt all right.”
Thankfully for us that wasn’t the end at all; the interview was part of the promotion for latest release Sugaring Season. Now into her 40’s, it sounds something of a cliché to report that the record is one full of experience and maturity, but that’s exactly what it boils down to. Contemplative and at times mournful, it is oozing with what the Spanish and Latin Americans call duende.
More than simply a welcome return or return to form even (though both are true), Sugaring Season is an album of great beauty, emotion and authenticity, which should safely see Beth Orton grab and hold onto that place in the hearts and minds of critics and fans we mentioned earlier. A great deal of substance – not that she ever seemed lacking in that department – has been added to that scrawny girl in Cons we saw exuding cool backstage at Reading.
Billed as a joint headliner, this show also features double Ivor Novello award nominees, The Leisure Society. Fresh from the release of third album Alone Aboard The Ark, their sound – all drip off the tongue folk-pop – should compliment that of our returning heroine nicely.