With the release of Beth Orton's long-awaited third album, Daybreaker, there was already a groundswell of buzz that this might be her best yet. A devoted Orton fan, I ran out for a copy, gave it a few listens and was at first... underwhelmed. But then something curious happened. I found myself craving certain tracks, began to hear some of the lyrics in my head while I worked. Without me noticing when it happened, Daybreaker quietly became one of my favorite CDs.
That's the funny thing about Beth Orton. As with her earlier works, Trailer Park and Central Reservation, she has a tendency to grow on you. Her work can come across initially as introspective and unapproachable. And yet if you give it some time, it's anything but. The secret lies in her sinewy, plaintive voice and resolute, evocative vocals. She's like that reserved friend you take on a road trip expecting long stretches of silence, only to get a refreshingly quirky torrent of thoughts, opinions and impressions for several hundred miles.
The album's first single, " Concrete Sky," feels like familiar Orton territory, with sparkling indie pop harmonies and the welcome vocal accompaniment of Ryan Adams. (Daybreaker... Heartbreaker... Coincidence? We think not.) But elsewhere Orton exhibits an expansiveness that was largely missing on the haunting Central Reservation, no doubt the influence of longtime friend and former dance floor comrade, William Orbit. "Anywhere," "Mount Washington" and "Daybreaker" (which also features the Chemical Brothers) all exhibit a cooly seductive quality, all slinkiness and jazz. But her bittersweet folkie roots are just as evident. Born and raised in rural Norfolk, England, losing her mother just as her career was beginning to take off, Orton was as influenced by Rickie Lee Jones and Gram Parsons as she was by London's club scene (the family moved to the city when Orton was 14). "God Song" has the slow thump-and-scrape of boots on a dusty dance floor, with Emmylou Harris offering a ribbon of sweetness to Orton's yowl of regret. "This One's Gonna Bruise" is a sucker punch of loss, the uncomfortable realization following a breakup that even the most passionate loves can be rendered about as meaningful as "constellations turned into little Polaroids in a cardboard box." Both of Orton's strongest musical signatures -- ethereal space grooves and deeply felt vocal realizations -- culminate in the album's closer, "Thinking About Tomorrow."
In fact, going back to the road trip metaphor, Daybreaker is probably best listened to while driving, where its airy melodies trail out against blue skies and you've got plenty of time to ruminate on Orton's considerable skill as a wordsmith.