Some musicians are incredibly productive, recording songs as if they were opening the floodgates of their minds. Others let their music slowly emerge from their psyches, fermenting like fine wine, before eventually yielding a handful of carefully crafted compositions. British singer/songwriter Beth Orton counts herself in the latter camp.
It's been four years since Orton released her last full-length album, 2002's Daybreaker. Bearing production from Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl, the disc was her most successful to date, cracking the U.S. Top 40 and U.K. Top 10 charts. But its dramatic, sometimes ornate qualities garnered uneven reviews from critics, fans and even Orton herself. "I think there's some beautiful songs there," she now says. "[But] they got a little overshadowed by production. It's nobody's fault but mine."
In contrast, much of Orton's new album, Comfort of Strangers, is just her, producer (and famed singer/guitarist) Jim O'Rourke and drummer Tim Barnes. The musical backdrops are tastefully simple, allowing Orton's sharp, weathered voice to pierce and weave around songs of heartbreak and personal growth.
Her songwriting, full of offhand observations and unusual choruses, takes time to digest. But listeners who make the effort are justly rewarded with insights not often found, even within the emotionally rich singer/songwriter world she occupies.
The uncompromising Comfort of Strangers, a strong effort that is drawing praise from those same critics who dismissed Daybreaker, resulted from years of professional tumult. During that time, she struggled to evolve from a folk/electronic artist known for working with dance producers like Watt, Chemical Brothers and William Orbit, but only if "the songs dictated it." Orton describes how she finished making Comfort of Strangers: "I think that when I wrote the first batch of songs, I got into this whole thing of, like, 'I'm going to produce myself. I'm just going to make it voice and guitar.' I don't know ... I thought that was the way to keep the integrity and the honesty.... Then I changed my mind and thought, 'Production on my own is just going to be dreadful.
"I heard ... [singer/songwriter] M. Ward performing ... We did a little bit of recording [but] I didn't really want to make a record that sounded like [his] kind of sound. Then I tried recording with another guy called Kieran Hebden [better known as folktronica artist Four Tet]. That was really interesting as well. But that wasn't it either."
Then Orton heard Jim O'Rourke's Halfway to a Threeway EP. The former member of Sonic Youth had become one of the pioneers of American experimental rock on the strength of albums like Eureka and Insignificance, and his production work on the last two Wilco albums (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born) breathed new life into the lauded indie band.
When Orton first met O'Rourke 10 years ago, while she was working on Trailer Park, he had given her a CD of songs he had produced.
"I completely forgot about it until I heard Halfway to a Threeway," she says. "I just loved the sound of his records. I loved the warmth and the sonic depth. It was just something really beautiful. And I loved his guitar playing."
Orton dropped O'Rourke an e-mail and the two became fast collaborators. "He had a whole kind of view on the way my voice has been recorded in the past, and how it should be recorded now, and about the music that should be around the songs," she says.
"I think Jim's approach was just to enhance what was already there, not to try and complicate it or make it more highbrow when it's just sort of what it is. In a way, the simplicity brought out a kind of complexity in what's there. But also, I think maybe lyrically, and maybe melodically too, these songs are more complex than other ones I've written before."
Indeed, O'Rourke's production is nothing if not finely constructed. It rarely overwhelms or calls your attention, as it does on Wilco's Yankee. It's practically seamless, burbling along smoothly in the background of the propulsive "Rectify." On ballads like "Feral" and "Comfort of Strangers," Orton's melodies are punctuated by spare, muted, textured accompaniment -- just a simple shaker here, a soft surge of organ there. Even on the upbeat "Shopping Trolley," the crashing cymbals never drown out Orton's vocals, or the subdued lower end full of bass and piano.
"I just want to make good music," she says. "Until that time, I don't really see the point of releasing anything until it's right. Having said that, you could argue that I should get it out if and when [it's done]. Some people do that. I guess I'm maybe too much of a perfectionist."
Beth Orton at the Big Easy, 911 W. Sprague, on Wednesday, July 26, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $13.50. Call 325-SEAT. Joel Smith contributed to this article.