BETH ORTON: KIDSTICKS (2016)
1) Snow; 2) Moon; 3) Petals; 4) 1973; 5) Wave; 6) Dawnstar; 7) Falling; 8) Corduroy Legs; 9) Flesh And Blood; 10) Kidsticks.
Finally, some good sense. Realizing, perhaps, that continuing in the same neo-folk vein will never again even begin to make her work stand out, Beth Orton comes full circle and is back where she started — this is «folktronica» all over again, with electronic arrangements from top to bottom and her old trip-hop and house influences resurfacing again. This almost automatically would mean that Kidsticks is her best record in at least a decade — and, granted, since Beth Orton was never a genius artist to begin with, that ain't saying that much, but at least «unendurable boredom» is no longer the first association that comes to mind when listening.
The album is short, concise, and owes much of its flavor to Beth's collaboration with Andrew Hung of Bristol's Fuck Buttons fame — not that, at this point, turning to a digital wizard who made his claim to fame eight years ago would automatically imply that she is trying to «trend», but that is really only for the better: there's no question of trends or fashions, merely of generating a new kind of sound for her, one that would best suit her romantic, naturalistic, and cosmic inclinations. Oh, there is no real conceptuality on the album, but she does seem to be on an environmental kick, with song titles that constantly refer to celestial and natural objects and lyrics that constantly tie these objects to her mood swings and emotions. (Ironically, the biggest public splash that the album made was when she went out into the desert to make a video and accidentally — or intentionally, who really knows? she now says she thought it was dead, but who knows?... — spray-painted an old Joshua tree, getting so much flack from enviornmentalists that she eventually had to remove the video and apologize. Ted Nugent she's not, evidently). And, at long last, there is some goddamn energy on the album to account for that.
For one thing, it's playful. The very first track, ʽSnowʼ, aims for a light psychedelic effect, with an almost chaotic mess of quasi-tribal drumming, quasi-tribal chanting, flanged guitars snapping at each other from different speakers, and tons and tons of vocal overdubs — starting with the opening line, "I'll astrally project myself into the life of someone else", which seems like a mission statement for the entire record, and ending with the repeated chant of "I'm getting high, getting high off your star". It's an odd, but strangely friendly synthesis, and it suggests that, for the rest of the album, Orton would rather prefer to explore the «bright» than the «dark» potential of electronica — and that, on the whole, she is in an agreeable mood this time of year.
Even when the music does get a little darker, it's a natural rather than evil darkness — ʽMoonʼ, after all, is a song about moonlit nights, so a deep dark bassline and echoey ambient keyboard wobbles in the background are in the works; but on the whole, it is a friendly techno number that just makes you want to dance, all the while wondering what the lyrics are about (limits of human cognition? all is one under the /moon and/ sun? whatever). However, the fact that the songs vary between straightforward bouncy light pop (ʽ1973ʼ, which kind of sounds like an old Cars outtake) and darker, deeper, more soulful material (ʽWaveʼ, with a heavier, almost sedated vocal performance from Beth that brings Patti Smith to mind) do much in terms of procuring diversity and keeping your attention from straying too far away. Bottomline is, this is a record with a positive, even sentimental message, but it really tries to deliver the message in many different ways.
A few of the tunes might even stick around in memory for a while, like the slightly jazzy ballad ʽFallingʼ (with a really pretty "I'm falling backwards, I'm falling sidewards from your arms" bit that's so tender and tragic at the same time), or the final epic ʽFlesh And Bloodʼ, also jazzy in essence and featuring a wonderfully engineered double-tracked falsetto chorus part. The bad news is that you'd have to strive for that — as pretty as Kidsticks is on the whole, neither the vocals nor the instrumental melodies ever dare to cut deep, mostly presenting you with nice, but superficial naturalistic-emotional soundscapes. And sometimes the complex arrangements almost seem wasted — cue ʽDawnstarʼ with its painstakingly built-up crescendo of harmonies, guitars, pianos, synthesizers, but since there is no single overriding mega-theme, the whole song ends up unsatisfactory and unmemorable.
On the whole, this is damn pleasant, but as far as Beth's synthesis of pop, folk, and electronica is concerned in general, this ain't no SuperPinkyMandy, and considering that very few people, as of 2016, even remember what Trailer Park was all about (most of the reviews of the new album I've read had to dedicate at least a couple of original paragraphs to a detailed answer to the popular question «Beth Orton? Who the fuck is Beth Orton?»), nobody except for Beth's veteran fans should probably bother with the record anyway — chances are that if you do not see yourself rejoicing at the idea of Beth Orton going back from her folksy innovations to her electronic roots (does sound like an unusual idea, doesn't it?), and do not evaluate Kidsticks in the context of her overall work, the album won't probably even make much of a blip on your radar. Still, at least if she continues making records like these, and not like Sugaring Season, for the rest of her 21st century days, I'll be glad to give them a spin every now and then.