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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Beth Orton: SuperPinkyMandy


1) Don't Wanna Know 'Bout Evil; 2) Yesterday's Gone; 3) When You Wake; 4) City Blue; 5) Where Do You Go?; 6) Faith Will Carry; 7) She Cries Your Name; 8) Roll The Dice; 9) The Prisoner; 10) Release Me.

Although Beth Orton herself has always stated that her first «proper» album was Trailerpark, and almost went as far as to disown the first stage of her recording career altogether, there is no getting away from the facts that SuperPinkyMandy was (a) a complete LP, (b) a complete LP officially released on a Japanese record label, (c) a complete LP officially released on a record label and credited to Beth Orton, along with the authorship of most of the songs. Additionally, there is no getting away from my opinion that SuperPinkyMandy, despite being completely different from the «stereotypical» Beth Orton LP, is at least as good as the very best of those LPs, and, in some ways, maybe even better. Not a «masterpiece», perhaps, but certainly an album that deserves much larger exposure than recommended by its very author.

Elizabeth Caroline Orton, a former Pizza Hut waitress, caterer, and amateur actor, got her first musical break when she teamed up with William Orbit, at that time still a relatively unknown man-of-the-arts who would eventually get his biggest break producing Madonna's Ray Of Light — but, frankly, his collaboration with Orton, free from the obligation to follow «strictly com­mer­cial» rules, was a far superior effort, despite largely following the same line of work: putting re­latively straightforward and traditional pop melodies in a supah-cool, trendy, futuristic electronic casing. Amazingly, the combination works to near-perfection.

SuperPinkyMandy does not try to mask its strict adherence to «formula». With a few minor ex­ceptions, each track here gradually or quickly sets up a danceable «trip-hoppy» groove, some­times faster, sometimes slower, against which the singer positions her vocals, usually echoey and ghostly, and almost always resolving into a repetitive, mantraic chorus. Around this chorus, even more ghostly backing vocals and various electronic or non-electronic effects cluster in unpredic­table combinations, working towards a dizzifying neo-psychedelic feel. In this context, the role of the singer is reduced (lead vocal being only one equal part of everything else), and that is good — Beth Orton is credible, but she's nowhere near as uniquely interesting, personality-wise, as Beth Gibbons, for instance (just to name another Beth from the same era), and when she allows herself to be just a part of the scenery, «less» becomes «more».

Orton and Orbit first tested the water with a cover version — taking John Martyn's acoustic sen­timentality ʽDon't Wanna Know 'Bout Evilʼ ("only wanna know 'bout love") and giving it the «Orbit touch». The result, with about four or five different keyboard parts, analog and digital alike, piled on top of the rhythmic groove, and Beth adding her «icy numb» vocals — suggesting that here is a woman that already has learned everything possible about evil, but nothing so far about love — is either inoffensively boring, or mildly mesmerizing, depending on the nature of your own senses, but at least the combination of ingredients is unique enough to allow for some intrigue, and then build it up from there.

Encouraged by the results, they then applied this formula to a bunch of self-written tracks, with Orbit taking care of the grooves and Beth supplying the mantras. Stylistically, the grooves con­tain enough diversity to last you all the way through. ʽYesterday's Goneʼ is hard, harsh, funky, and moves in the direction of hardcore techno, while Beth is singing the vocal part of Atropos the Moira, sternly warning us about "blind chances of destiny". ʽWhen You Wakeʼ buzzes and drones on with two guitars weaving around each other, like a Velvet Underground imitation. ʽFaith Will Carryʼ sounds the closest to a proto-Ray Of Light techno-pop number, but with a nice ringing guitar part helping it come across as more natural. ʽShe Cries Your Nameʼ, which would later be re-recorded for Trailerpark (in a much less impressive fashion, if you ask me), is almost bluesy, but still spiced up with suitably astral noises to add coldness and distance. And so on, with just about every song having something to offer.

If there is anything to criticize, it might be the rhythmic base of the grooves, which is nowhere near as experimental or just plain inventive as the layers of overdubs, or even the basslines, laid down with love and care. Most of the beat patterns are averagely funky, or mildly techno, but in the end, the similarity of the signatures of tempos may trick you into feeling that all these songs are the same, when they really aren't. Perhaps, in the end, it was the percussion that annoyed Beth so much that she'd swore she'd never want to work like this again — too bad, because, having split up with Orbit, she not only lost the beats, but also the man's talent at setting up the proper musical atmosphere for her icy melancholy. And maybe even more than that, because her ballads on the «regular» albums often sound boring, whereas a thing like ʽWhere Do You Go?ʼ, losing the beat and adding pianos and strings, is totally charming: the chorus ("where do you go when the wind doesn't blow?") contains one of her finest folksy vocal flourishes that I have not en­countered that frequently in her subsequent career.

Naturally, you won't like SuperPinkyMandy if you do not have a thing for «mood music», nor does it even begin to compare with the pinnacles of that genre, where «mood» borders on destruc­tive implosion (like Dummy). But if you do have a thing for «getting in the mood», and do not mind lowering your expectations a bit, you will be more than rewarded by the surprisingly unex­pected creativity of the album. And its uniqueness, provided your casual acquaintance with Beth Orton began with Trailerpark. Fortunately, these days it is much easier to get access to a long out-of-print album than it used to in the good old «print days», so you will probably have little trouble locating the tunes, so you can join me in my sincere thumbs up.

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