by carl wilson

Feral Children and Infinite Ghosts


I wrote another version of this post on Friday, but a crash wiped it out, so here's the punchier version: A couple weeks back there was a thread on ILM comparing Cat Power, Fiona Apple and Beth Orton. Orton generally got ranked last, but she's the only one of the three who's ever really compelled my attention, at least before Apple's Extraordinary Machine. Orton's emotionality is lower-key and not nearly so self-dramatizing. But, as I said in my review on Friday of her new, fourth album, The Comfort of Strangers (produced by Jim O'Rourke), I've always been unsure whether I like her songs as much as I like her, or more accurately the persona or emotional tone that registers in her songs. Yet another of those (semi?) extra-musical factors that colour our responses to sound. In any case, if you've ever cottoned on to Orton, I do think this album's her best since her debut.

Also on Friday, I wrote the weekly Essential Tracks column. Usually I prefer to mix such lists up more genre-wise, but it ended up being rather indie-centric. It featured Petra Haden's a capella cover of one of my favourite songs, Brian Wilson's God Only Knows, the even more extreme exercise in a capella that is the Honda Civic "Choir" commercial, a new Sunset Rubdown track, and one from Philadelphia's Man Man, a band I still jerk back and forth about. (No real relevance between that link and Man Man - I've just been dying to mention DisneyDevo here, although I feel like coming up with any coherent response to them would involve several hours of intensive therapy. Maybe Primal Scream therapy.)

And speaking of completely fucked-up weird shit - Destroyer fans, feast your eyes on this.

Renewed, Orton raises the stakes

Carl Wilson
3 February 2006
The Globe and Mail

Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton (Astralwerks)

★ ★ ★

British singer Beth Orton's career has been blessed and damned by timing: Her 1996 debut Trailer Park offered a novel amalgam of folk music and techno, using fresh techniques to mix acoustic guitars with a more spacious sort of electronica. Her pleasingly gawky, personalized vocal style also answered a growing boredom with the idealization of the anonymous club diva.

Orton was quickly anointed the doyenne of “folktronica” by the press, and the buzz brought her other listeners who fell for the range of feeling in her songs, and the way a hopefulness radiated through all her depictions of emotional burn victims. Fans latched onto it the way people do to Joni Mitchell's Blue; Orton had a similar self-aware vulnerability, if not Mitchell's gift for indelible tunes and lyrical detail.

That it also clicked nicely as dinner-party background seemed like a bonus, but it came with a catch: By the time she made 1999's Central Reservation, with its minor hit Stolen Car, folktronica had become cheapened currency, as many others adopted the template, often with Brazilian or African or French twists. It became the standard Starbucks and hair-salon soundtrack, music by which to check your operating system for the millennium bug. The trend had become a millstone by the time of 2002's Daybreaker. The anxiety to transcend it without abandoning it stuck out all over the album, creating a mess of overdone gestures like a crateful of high-end discard accessories crushing the low-key naturalism of her songs. The project sank.

Soon she'd been dropped by the label that had championed her for more than a decade. In recent interviews she speaks of desperate months in which she had trouble getting out of bed, fearing she was finished. Succour came unexpectedly from a stranger, New York musician Jim O'Rourke. She intended just to hire him as a studio guitarist, but he ended up producing the whole album. Together they adopted a sparse, spontaneous approach that had them finished in a couple of weeks. Most of the tracks are first or second takes.

Those who know O'Rourke as the svengali behind Wilco's experimentally inclined Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or as a collaborator with cerebral noise-rock band Sonic Youth, may be surprised to find the sounds here nearly all acoustic and harmonious. The digital beats are gone, with jazz drummer Tim Barnes on percussion. A veteran improviser, O'Rourke honed in on the simplest, most immediate textures to highlight Orton's vocals. (Savvy listeners might recognize some of the rolling instrumental patterns of his own 1990s solo pop projects.)

As a folk album, funnily enough, it puts Orton in the middle of the moment once again: Comparable 1970s British troubadours such as Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, are all enjoying a revival among the “free” or “freak” folk movement of acoustic-visionary young songwriters. The 14 songs, fixed on matters of heartbreak and longing, also include her best performances ever. Although her singing is always emotional, it's usually been checked by cool control, an attractive but limiting English reserve. On this more “live” set, she often lets her voice darken with rage, sarcasm, insistence — raising all the stakes.

Her recent troubles seem to have summoned up past ones, including a youth that was harsh by all accounts: There's a song toward the end of the album about “feral children” fighting off “infinite ghosts,” and these glimpses of the wounded animal make the music more human. There's also an intriguing religious sub-theme to many songs, in which the singer struggles with a lover/tormenter's rather righteous belief in God, which helps expand the scene beyond private pain — immediately evoking the secular world's current crisis over the demands of the devout.

Yet Orton's melodies still tend to wander more often than they punch, and for every striking lyric (“The world's not such a friendly place, is it?/ It can go very cold, very fast/ And for a very long time”) there are several poetic platitudes about sun and sky and love and time. While her voice commands attention every moment, only a few of the songs stick in the mind.

Beth Orton is a curious case of an artist who inspires empathy and affection, but leaves you unsure if you like her music quite as much as you like her. Perhaps the nicest thing about her renewed vitality here is the sure sense that there will be plenty more time to work that mystery out.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, February 03 at 4:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)



while you silly boys go on about beth orton and mr. ridiculous, I've been gazing at petra haden's bicep:

thanks for the alert!
the BBC interview with Petra, btw, is THOROUGHLY ridiculous. Bruce Johnston sort of hijacks the interview and metaphorically pats her on the head (and suggests that she cover Kokomo) and you can kind of hear Petra snorting in the background, which I found kind of charming.

Posted by spitzer on February 7, 2006 4:45 PM



Tim - Concerns understood, but that's the only way I know of to hear the piece - which is, after all, a commercial composition, about cars. I think of it on the analogue of court music, commissioned by the automotive kings. But mainly I just didn't know of any other source to hear the piece on its own - and also that site has the documentary of the making of the piece, which I enjoyed...

Besides, I don't think that there's any particular usefulness in pretending some purified separation from the dominant mode of transportation of our day. I ride in cars (mainly taxis) pretty often, so it would be hypocritical to refuse to pay attention to an interesting soundwork because it has that taint which I share. To me that's part of the implicit humour of the piece, and if I had gone on about it I would have talked about how one is aware that there's something delicious about this very refined and deeply embodied technique being used to promote something that is actually much dirtier and more body-unfriendly. Blame my overdeveloped sense of irony I guess.

But still, I'm sure if it had been a musical evocation of bicycling or of trains, I would have given it even more attention. (And I do very frequently link to the Toronto Public Space Committee and other bike-friendly organizations, though pro-bike/anti-car zealotry is sometimes distasteful to me, just like any other kind of zealotry.)

Posted by zoilus on February 7, 2006 11:11 AM



Carl, I found it unusual for you to link to a car add. I know why you did it but there must be another way to hear this piece online. I found it painful and frustrating to be looking at that car and never did get to hear the song I was curious about.

I look forward to a link to the Toronto pro-bike lane society etc.


Posted by tim on February 7, 2006 9:29 AM



"Destroyer industrial complex"?? I needs me a copy.

Posted by andrew on February 6, 2006 11:11 PM



Oh, and the article *did* use the phrase "Destroyer industrial complex," which kind of rules.

Posted by jennifer on February 6, 2006 11:10 PM



Fader pieces do tend to be short, but that cover still has an impact. And the "exiled king" line is nice because it partakes so much of typical Destroyer imagery - if there were a song on the next album with a line about "rock's exiled king" I wouldn't be the least surprised.

And Guy - I don't really have a crush on Orton, not to say that I don't get musician crushes. (Though I don't think there are any currently heavily in the Active file... oh, wait, Joanna Newsom, never mind.) But I do have a strong friendly feeling towards the singer of some of her songs, such as my favourite from Trailer Park, "Live as You Dream."

Posted by zoilus on February 6, 2006 10:57 PM



The Fader article is a good brief profile of Bejar, and is otherwise fairly lightweight. It's an interesting introduction to Destroyer, but it didn't quite live up to the headline ("Rock's Exiled King").

Posted by jennifer on February 6, 2006 5:51 PM



Beth -did- have a disastrous show in Ottawa a few years ago, which resulted in lots of derision and snipes in X-Press and so on. I think it was at Barrymores. She asked people to shush in a way that was seen to be haughty, bitchy and very unlikeable. But I dunno, I wasn't there.

Posted by Sean on February 6, 2006 11:17 AM



Carl be honest here, Do you have a crush on Beth Orton? its ok because ive had a crush on her for the last 10 years. Come one face up.

I have always liked Beth Orton, and always felt slightly ashamed of that fact amongst my friends. Beth isnt cool in indie circles like cat power is. I think comparing her to Cat Power or Fiona Apple is very misleading. She is VERY VERY english (not british mind you, english) the other two are very american. Its a bit like comparing well, apple and limies.

Anyhow I remember when her first album came out I read some reviews which said "well here is a new talent, still not there, she'll only get better and put out a GREAT album one day". Now i realize she will never put a GREAT album. Just a lot of really nice ones. Thats good enough for me.

How does she always get such good people to work with her? maybe its because they have crushes on her too!

Posted by guy tanentzapf on February 6, 2006 9:36 AM



I think the thing is that Beth Orton is the only one of the three that you'd actually want to share a pitcher with or just talk to. I saw her on her last tour when she was doing a mostly acoustic set and everytime he would try to leave the stage, the crowd would bring her back on for another encore due to the warmth and the wondefulness of Beth and her songs and her emotional vunerability. In the end, I think she did like 6 encores that night (no exagerration) and was only chased from the stage by the then weekly Discotronic night at the Commodore.

Posted by Graham on February 6, 2006 9:00 AM



I'm a fan of the early Beth Orton stuff as well (and within the genre, her Best Bit EP with Terry Callier is pretty wonderful). Although personal aesthetics make me put Cat Power well ahead (as I think I probably state in that ILM thread), and Fiona Apple's singles appeal to me a lot more than Beth Orton's, I too am charmed by Beth's, i dunno, musical modesty. It feels very much like she's trying to articulate something, and struggling to do so without an artificial vulnerability or wispiness. The challenge of course is that the result is often maudlin. I've not been struck by the new album at all - but you hit the nail on the head by pointing to the lack of strong melodies. THere's nothing for me to hang my coat on.

And isn't that Sunset Rubdown track great? Man.

Posted by Sean on February 6, 2006 4:27 AM



destroyer cover = awesome.

disney devo = headfuck...

Posted by andrew on February 6, 2006 1:13 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson