BETH ORTON: COMFORT OF STRANGERS (2005)
1) Worms; 2) Countenance; 3) Heartland Truckstop; 4) Rectify; 5) Comfort Of Strangers; 6) Shadow Of A Doubt; 7) Conceived; 8) Absinthe; 9) A Place Inside; 10) Safe In Your Arms; 11) Shopping Trolley; 12) Feral Children; 13) Heart Of Soul; 14) Pieces Of Sky.
Good God, is this ever boring. On her fourth (actually, fifth, if you count SuperPinkyMandy, and you should) album, Orton goes for an even more stripped-down approach — most of the songs are in trio format, with Jim O'Rourke handling bass duties and Tim Barnes on percussion, while Beth is doing her latest best to impress us as a singer, songwriter, guitar player, artistic soul, and gracious human being. Unfortunately, of all these categories, I can only recommend «gracious human being» to your attention. If you are in need of a randomly chosen gracious human being this evening, Beth Orton is as good as any, and maybe even better than most.
The one major saving grace of these fourteen songs is that they are all short — only one crosses the four-minute mark, and some barely go over two. This means that at least your ears will not have enough time to shrivel, wither, and fall off in protest as the lady moves from one traditional folk chord sequence to another. She does try to write her own vocal melodies for the songs, but she still has not mastered the art of the hook — at best, her «hooks» are softly shouted slogans (ʽHeart Of Soulʼ), and at worst, she just adds a little touch of singing to her poetry.
Lyrically, as you could guess, there is a lot of suffering going on, completely inadequate to the lite-melancholic, lulling music that surrounds the vocal delivery — and the vocal delivery itself is as tepid as usual. The words are hit-and-miss — some of the imagery is thought-provoking, although it is hard to lyrically justify an album whose opening lines go "Worms don't dance / They haven't got the balls" — but in the end, they are about as uninteresting as the music. Whole songwriting factories have put out billions of songs on the side effects of the love business, and there is no way Comfort Of Strangers could stand competition with the best of 'em.
I count exactly one track here where an interesting musical move was suggested — ʽRectifyʼ has a sort of non-trivial transition from the fast gallop of the verses to the slow shuffle of the "if you take a drop of water from a bucket..." chorus. Both parts in themselves are pretty standard fare country-pop, but the way they alternate with each other is novel and even fun, especially compared to the utter facelessness of the rest.
It is quite possible — indeed, almost a certainty — that some of these songs could have been saved by means of more imaginative arrangements (bring back Orbit!). Not even Beth Orton's biggest fans could probably claim that she is an outstanding guitar or piano player, or endowed with some sort of idiosyncratic playing technique that puts her in her own niche. The «folktronica» thing was the only thing that gave her music an edge; take away the «-tronica» and you are left with nothing. There is no sense in wasting time analyzing these songs one by one. They are not «awful bad» per se, but I'd rather they be awful bad, because this demonstration of by-the-book «tasteful sensitive grace» is as head-splittingly dull as watching a Nora Ephron movie, sorry. Thumbs down.