Album Reviews: Comfort of Strangers by Beth OrtonThey never really seemed to be on parallel paths before, but the past year has found Beth Orton and Fiona Apple living out a similar script. In each story, our songwriting heroine returns from a lengthy absence, finds herself supposedly at a career crossroads, enlists the help of a producer who promises to put his own stamp on the material (Jon Brion in Apple's case, Kieran Hebden a.k.a. Four Tet in Orton's), then switches horses in midstream (favoring Mike Elizondo in Apple's case, Jim O'Rourke in Orton's), and the world celebrates both a perceived return to form and the creative maturation of its heroine.
This makes for good theater, but it doesn't do justice to either of the back catalogs in question. Daybreaker, the immediate predecessor to Comfort Of Strangers, was technically the nadir of Orton's discography, but Trailer Park and, especially, Central Reservation remain as vital and singular-sounding as when they were first released. It's not like O'Rourke was brought in to make Paula Abdul relevant again; he was handed a pretty strong franchise.
Whether she is singing sparse folk songs or entrancing clubgoers alongside William Orbit and The Chemical Brothers, Orton has always been a captivating vocalist, harnessing an ethereal cool that can also break into an almost strangled loneliness. When she is roused, she is wonderfully bracing, especially when the music builds up with her. On the closing verse of "A Place Aside," for example, she ratchets up the emotion and reaches down in her gut for one last pledge to an absent love. As a whole, that track -- simply built compared to some of the others -- is a testament to the power of specificity and intimacy. Orton remembers how it felt to wrap her toes around a lover's heel, and the void leaves her lighting matches just to watch them burn.
"Love ignored erodes in time," she sings on "Absinthe," and that's a pretty accurate thesis statement for Comfort Of Strangers. Perhaps appropriately, the listener needs to water the album to see it grow; relegated to a couple listens or a background soundtrack, many songs bleed together as a maudlin tapestry of heartbreak and hope and how-time-flies. Melodically, Orton gets a little murky sometimes, and O'Rourke sometimes seems to overcompensate for that formlessness by crowding the arrangements, as on the string section of "Conceived."
The album's second half discards the "adult contemporary" feel that bogs down the first. Orton goes electric on the brisk "Shopping Trolley," while O'Rourke drives the song ahead on piano and Tim Barnes finally gets a chance to beat up his drumset a little. On the other end of the spectrum are the stark piano ballad "Pieces of Sky" and the minimal "Feral," which rely on little beyond the ache and determination in Orton's voice.
At its core, Comfort Of Strangers is a compelling chronicle of the push-and-pull between stubborn romanticism and wounded desolation. It's a heavyweight battle, and when it's all said and done, you're not quite sure who came out ahead on the scorecards. We're pulling for you, Beth. -- Adam McKibbin
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