BETH ORTON: TRAILER PARK (1996)
1) She Cries Your Name; 2) Tangent; 3) Don't Need A Reason; 4) Live As You Dream; 5) Sugar Boy; 6) Touch Me With Your Love; 7) Whenever; 8) How Fair; 9) Someone's Daughter; 10) I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine; 11) Galaxy Of Emptiness.
The «official authorized» debut album. After her stint with Orbit, followed by a collaboration with The Chemical Brothers on Exit Planet Dust, Beth Orton decides that, after all, she is a singer-songwriter first, and a publicity agent for modern electronic sounds only second. Let all those other guys come up with their silly club rhythms — Beth Orton is an artist, and you need to sit down and listen to her artistry. Blowing your mind is a nobler option than sweeping you off your feet. Besides, with all those Orbit-style noises and echoes, she was miscast way too strongly as the «mystery lady», when in reality she is so open and sentimental.
The new album, produced by Victor Van Vugt (formerly responsible for several Nick Cave LPs) and DJ-cum-remixer Andrew Weatherall, is not at all free from modern rhythms — it is seriously funky and, in places, trip-hoppy. It did, in fact, earn Beth's music the tag of «folktronica», although it must be acknowledged that there is a lot more «folk» here than «-tronica» where it used to be vice versa during Beth's stint with Orbit. But the basic idea, a combination of folk motives, singer-songwriter imagery, and contemporary production, could work very well, if...
...if, well, the major problem of all of Beth's post-PinkyMandy output weren't so irritatingly simple: it is, for lack of a more original word, boring. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but ultimately, Beth Orton's musical and general artistic image from now on would lack «that one special ingredient» (or those several special ingredients) that is necessary for an artist with his or her own say in this world. The music has a little bit of everything — respectable songwriting ideas, acceptable lyrical agenda, enjoyable singing voice, understandable taste in arrangements — but unless you make a conscious effort, the songs do not really stick. There is nothing offensive about them (as in, say, an aggressively-feminist Ani di Franco way of constructing songs from knives instead of hooks and pretending to call it «music»), but if we're talking of ways to translate human and artistic personality into musical form, I think that, off the top of my head, Suzanne Vega, for instance, comes across sounding way more «deep» and «interesting».
The main problem, I guess, is that Orton's songs sound as if her chief influence were someone like Emmylou Harris — gallantly embroidered country-folk-pop with individual sensitivity — but without the true rootsy depth required to make the songs sound alive and natural. Something like ʽWheneverʼ, which completely eschews modern rhythms and relies entirely on acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies to achieve its goals — a song that could have been written by just about anybody circa 1971-72 and anytime later, pleasant and professional, but instantly forgettable. Or ʽDon't Need A Reasonʼ, quietly waltzing along to an unassuming lead fiddle and then to an equally unassuming orchestrated background. Nice, life-asserting, and about as dull as its basic message: "So I've been calling angels down to Earth / Because I believe we need them". If I were an angel, I'd certainly think twice before responding to such a call.
The basic rule of thumb about Trailer Park, as well as most of the rest of Beth's catalog, is this: the less she concentrates on «soul», «message», and «humanism» and the more she concentrates on «technicalities», be it melodic hooks or sonic tapestry, the better she gets. Case in point: the new version of ʽShe Cries Your Nameʼ, completely recast from its early «cosmic trip-hop» image with Orbit into a slightly Eastern-tinged psycho-folk shape, where acoustic rhythms are complemented with a droning, sliding strings arrangement that, at times, sounds almost like a tribute to George Harrison's ʽWithin You Without Youʼ. I am afraid I still prefer the original and all of its hauntingly bubbling keyboard inventions, but the reinvention is no slouch, either, and it managed to crack the singles market and put the lady on the scene, after all.
The «meat» of the album clings to the ribs of the longer tracks — ʽTangentʼ, ʽTouch Me With Your Loveʼ, ʽGalaxy Of Emptinessʼ, stretched out grooves with dark bass lines whose melodies are just as influenced by country-pop as anything else on here, but whose atmospherics sort of offers an «easier» alternative to the disturbing soundscapes of Portishead, replacing «suicidal bleek» with «tolerably melancholic». The bass melodies at least fulfill the function of solid anchors to root the song to a channel in your mind, and the electronic embellishments, though nowhere near as wild as Orbit's, are still more inventive than the acoustic guitar work on the more traditionally-oriented material.
Other than that, Beth's little penchant for upbeat pop pays off on ʽLive As You Dreamʼ, which is probably, vocal-wise, the catchiest number here, and on ʽSomeone's Daughterʼ — the combination of vocal hooks with friendly funky rhythms works well enough; surprisingly, Beth's «sunny» side can actually be more impressive than her melancholic side. She also does a nice cover of the Ronettes' ʽI Wish I Never Saw The Sunshineʼ, backed by just her acoustic playing, and... well, at least she is not able to spoil an already good song.
So, all in all, I cannot imagine how it would be possible to fall in love with Trailer Park, but it would also be impossible to deny it its own face. The material is unquestionably diverse, the songwriting is not without its moments, and the merger of several genres into one is definitely an ongoing thing. As for the lack of «sharpness» and «spiciness», well, I can also understand how some would consider it a good thing — the humbleness, the reluctance to be too gimmicky, the honest refusal of exaggerating and artifically condensing one's feelings. In any case, one thing's for certain: there is no «adult contemporary» as such in the vicinity of Trailer Park, and the fact that she's avoided that pitfall while circling so dangerously close to the pit alone is well worth a respectable thumbs up. In short — a good record to savor after you've exhausted the «flashy» mood masterpieces of the 1990s.
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