The Sound Of Music
I first came across Beth Orton singing ‘Alive Alone’ the fadeout number on the Chemical Brothers stunning debut album Planet Dust in 1994 – a trick she repeated with ‘Where do I begin’ on 1997’s follow-up Dig your own hole. Now Beth Orton is a folk singer from Norfolk – how on earth did she end up singing (not sampled) on two major dance albums of the 1990s? The answer is probably as mundane as the lads needing a female singer and some bloke working with them at the time said he’d seen her down the pub the other Wednesday and she had sounded alright. Or maybe it was a cunningly planned piece of major label artist manipulation to boost sales of folk singers. ? In truth, I don’t know.
OK maybe folk singer is a bit harsh. Beth sings songs unadorned by the sorts of backing and sweeping arrangements that have kept people everywhere from realising that Robbie Williams can’t actually sing. She is unlikely to come out with a country number about cordwangling, ganderbags or similar agrarian nonsense. She’s more accurately the sort of terribly serious female singer/songwriter I would have had a massive crush on when I was an idealistic teenager. Think of Joni Mitchell but with better hair. Think of Janis Ian, but taller and thinner…and indeed better hair. But Three Rock Mountain is not about the looks, it’s about the music!
She’s not as austere as Laura Veirs. Year of Meteors pictures Laura on the cover of her album looking as serious and sensible as it is possible for a serious & sensible female singer/songwriter to look, but Three Rock Mountain is not about looks, it’s about the music (as I had to remind myself only a single paragraph ago). The tunes on Year of Meteors leave this Radiohead fan in need of some cheering up and predecessor album Carbon Glacier really was for the hardcore only.
Anyways, back to Beth! Her debut album in Europe Trailer Park was released in 1996 and the best known track is the simple but striking ‘She Cries Your Name’. In much the same vein was the languid ‘I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine’ while ‘Someone’s Daughter’ sets out to rock but ends up as a crustie dance-along that Fairport Convention wouldn’t have disowned.
This was followed up with Central Reservation in 1999. An album of very nice and sweet but indistinguishable songs left me thinking I didn’t need to buy another Beth album if I can’t tell these ones apart.
And so it proved to be with 2002s Daybreaker, the Beth Orton album I decided I could live without.
But time heals all wounds and in 2006 when Comfort of Strangers was released I was prepared to re-examine my prejudices. I’m glad I did. Beth & I have both mellowed a bit with age. It rocks. It rolls. It bounces along merrily in good humour and has a lot more fun than its predecessors did. Beth has rediscovered her smile and so have I.
Samples of her music can be heard at www.bethorton.mu