Cool, blue Beth Orton capitalizes on a marvelous voice

by Joe Manera | 5/3/99 5:00am

With a miraculous, salty voice never on the verge of breaking, Beth Orton could probably sing just about anything and still get away with it. Thankfully she doesn't, and her new "Central Reservation" is a mild, understated pleasure throughout, atoning for its lack of dynamics with a graceful playing hand and a sense of singularity that is a sure sign of an artist hyper-aware of how to exploit her best sides.

Orton's tentative hello, 1997's "Trailerpark," supposedly established her as the prototype for folkie/raver hybrids gone right. Her new release proves without a shadow of a doubt that the debut album promotional phooey was grossly inaccurate. Orton draws some lazy broad strokes in her records, but she rarely pulls over long enough to allow techno in the back seat. It's usually in the trunk, somewhere next to a Joni Mitchell songbook and a warm flannel blanket.

In retrospect it seems that "Trailerpark" was not the life-altering experience pundits claimed it to be. Perhaps Orton was coasting on the residual warmth of the not inconsiderable indie cred that her Chemical Brothers chanteuse stint earned her. Or perhaps she stood out in a crowded field of aggressively feminine, Biolage-hawking performers due to her androgynous appeal, Britishness and unwillingness in play the girl card. In any case, the album was a pleasant rainy-day diversion, but the most memorable track ("I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine") was a cover and too many of the songs collapsed into beige soft rock. Solid, yes, but hardly superlative.

As is usually the case with performers whose debut albums are overrated, the sophomore slump seemed inevitable and, in a way, it was. Orton still fails to live up to her daunting press and is ultimately too conventional to inspire slavish devotion, so there's little chance of "Central" positioning her as a cult goddess along the Amos-DiFranco lines. Fortunately for Orton, in another, more Earth-bound sense she has emerged a two-time victor since the new album re-affirms what she does best and the type of artist she is becoming.

Even less techno-influenced than "Trailerpark," "Central" shows Orton to be a fine folk craftswoman rather than some space-shot genre-bender, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. She excels at evoking moods rather than defining events and feelings, and her stock in trade is a stiff-necked melancholy that borders on fussiness but never quite gets there.

What sets Orton apart from Lilithean snoredom is that she doesn't think we are born innocent and isn't much interested in the Creation anyway. Lyrically she is curiously non-committal, which spares us pretensions but robs us of a center of gravity. She is only a decent writer; none of the lyrics on either of her records are particularly profound or quote-worthy, so those seeking the Full Package should probably look elsewhere.

Perhaps this pervading sense of incompleteness is due to the fact that Orton's music is purging rather than thesis, journalism or diary. She courts depression with a game face and simply spills, leaving the fragments of her intentions wherever they may fall. The tribute to her deceased mother ("Pass in Time") washes into the somnambulant title track which is in turn slapped next to "Stars All Seem to Weep," the album's sole nod to Orton's dancier roots. A staunch democrat, Orton gives all of the songs equal emphasis and breathe, defeating the possibility of stand-out tracks.

Thankfully, what is stamped on "Central" more than anything and what makes it greater than the sum of its parts is the undeniable existence of a voice that is good and good for you. This is very much a singer's record in that Orton reminds us of some of the very best ones-Dusty Springfield, Nick Drake-without paling in comparison. The perspective so absent in the lyrics and music seems to come to fruition the moment she opens her mouth.

Orton's voice is never coy or girlish, seeming to exist in an alternate reality from the one in which dime store Jewels strum their guitars in incense-stocked lavatories. All of the merely adequate components of Orton's songs start to make sense the moment she sings -the simplicity of the chords and the obsessively moderate pacing become homey, open-armed necessity. Her pipes stick a property flag on the anonymity-drenched turf, making you think she was the first and only one to ever get there. Of course it's all an elaborate hoax, but what a gorgeous cover-up it is.

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