[a]Beth Orton[/a], in a very real sense the tallest singer-songwriter of her generation, has been rescued from what might have been an obscure fate rattling around the Anglian country and folk circuit
[a]Beth Orton[/a], in a very real sense the tallest singer-songwriter of her generation, has been rescued from what might have been an obscure fate rattling around the Anglian country and folk circuit by her unique associations with the dance world.
She’s collaborated with, among others, [a]Red Snapper[/a] and The Chemical Brothers on ‘Dig Your Own Hole’. She could be touted as the missing link between the brutal, faceless modernism of techno and the more ancient, winsome introspection of the songstress. And so there’s a sequencer-driven remix of the title track here by Everything But The Girl‘s Ben Watt, who’s learned a trick or two from the job Todd Terry did on ‘Missing’, while ‘Stars All Seem To Weep’ here is boosted by a low-level dose of trip-hop adrenalin.
Yet all this is arguably the least interesting thing about [a]Beth Orton[/a]. What’s most compelling about ‘Central Reservation’ is that it picks up a songwriting tradition harking back to the days of Tim Buckley, Terry Callier (who guests here on ‘Pass In Time’) and, especially, John Martyn, whose ‘I Don’t Want To Know About Evil’ [a]Beth Orton[/a] once covered.
All of these used jazz, keyboards and string-laden arrangements to illustrate the sensual, emotional to-and-fro of their songs, making music that was more than just sixth-form love poetry set to wooden acoustic accompaniments. Like them, Beth Orton makes music that dissolves in its own fluids, music to dissolve into rather than nod along to.
This is especially true of ‘Couldn’t Cause Me Harm’ and ‘So Much More’, in which Orton‘s curiously Gaelic vowels, flat-sided and sharp-edged by turns, slither and backstroke through slow-moving streams of guitar, vibes, languid strings and tactile percussion, lyrics melting in a river of aching bliss. [a]Beth Orton[/a] is happiest and best in the hazy divide where words give way to the moans and oozing purrs which more eloquently say the unsayable about love and estrangement. She’s less convincing delivering epigrams like “Regrets are lessons we haven’t learned yet” as on the disappointingly Crystal Gayle-esque ‘Sweetest Decline’, which features Dr John tickling the ivories.
Not that Orton has to overburden her songs with instrumentation to connect. The unremixed version of the title track is a relatively stark dialogue between electric and acoustic guitars and there’s nothing softcore or moony about its most jarringly effective line, “I can still smell you on my fingers and smell you on my breath”. And it’s not all sticky-sweet harmony, as the perturbing, distantly rocky opener, ‘Stolen Car’ illustrates. If she’s got a mission statement it’s ‘Feel To Believe’, in which she pointedly rejects platitudes and false promises.
The same could be said of this album. It’s more than just words, it’s physical. Feel it and believe it.