Frankly, it’s been too long since we’ve heard anything from Beth Orton. After the poppy, folky and occasionally sublime Daybreaker came out she toured for a bit, including a fabulous performace in the Paradiso, then simply dropped off the face of the Earth, with ne’er an update on her website or a single word about her well being from one of her many showbiz personality friends in three years. To be honest, we were getting rather worried about her here in the Incendiary shed. Then, out of nowhere almost, she suddenly appears with a new album.
To be honest, the lack of fuss this new album has caused worried us a little. To say there has been little fanfare around the appearance of Comfort of Strangers would be an understatement, it’s just kind of been whispered about. “Hey, by the way, Beth Orton’s got a new album coming out. Did you know? Well Shhhh. Don’t tell anybody I said anything.” Even her record label have been strangely quiet about it, with none of the ‘Queen of electronic folk’ or ‘the female John Martyn’ bullshit they normally spout about her appearing in our letterbox this time around and after listening to Comfort of Strangers, Incendiary would like to complain for it is an absolutely beautiful album. But then, maybe that’s the problem.
Comfort of Strangers is not an exciting album. It won’t make you dance and to be honest there isn’t that much that you can latch on to quickly and sing along with after a couple of listens but it doesn’t mean to be. It’s not an immediate album, but it is undeniably gorgeous. All you have to do is give it time and patience. Sit down, relax and listen, actually listen to it and you will be rewarded with a remarkable piece of work.
Her voice is immediately recognizable, but the music’s a lot more relaxed and understated than anything she’s ever done. Sure, she’s hinted at this kind of direction in the past (Sweetest Decline/Central Reservation) but never has she felt confident or comfortable enough to rely on her voice so much. The musicianship on Comfort of Strangers is exemplary, but it’s hidden away. Everything’s gentle and quiet, but Beth’s voice is pushed forward, carrying you through each song. Shopping Trolley is probably the only exception to this rule, as it allows the drummer to slap his skins a bit and pushes the keyboards higher up in the mix. It’s the closest Beth’s ever came to rocking out, but it’s not exactly going to set the indie dancefloors on fire.
Elsewhere everything is, like I said, rather calm and understated but that’s not an insult. It’s a charming, beguiling record, brimming with passion and confidence. Being loud isn’t difficult, which is why you see so many young lads with guitars shouting a lot, but being quiet and contemplative, yet still keeping people interested is a real skill. Beth Orton has now developed her sound enough to embrace the silence in her songs. There’s nothing as brash and in your face as the strings in She Cries Your name or as quirky as the background to Touch Me With Your Love because there doesn’t need to be. This album sees Beth Orton confident enough to trust the words, the songs and the melodies enough to entertain you. The production is sparse and reflective because the quality of the songs themselves is enough. The title track, Heartland Truck Stop and Shadow of a Doubt are an incredible 1,2,3 punch and some of the best stuff she’s ever written. The tricks, clicks and quirks aren’t here because they would spoil the picture and that’s what this album is, a picture. The landscape painting on the cover is incredibly apt for the album itself. It’s distant and removed from its focal point, but it doesn’t stop it being incredibly pretty. Spend some time in the Comfort of Strangers. You’ll feel better for it.
Words : Damian Leslie