Although the bleeps and bloops of William Orbit and Andrew Weatherall might not have aged very gracefully, they did serve a purpose for Beth Orton: They kept one droopy lament from sounding too similar to the one before it.
No surprise, then, that the Norfolk, England, electrofolkie's third and most barren record, 2002's Daybreaker, turned out to be her least satisfying. Having largely ditched the electronics and backing musicians that added vibrancy to her earlier efforts, Orton plunged a brick into the murky waters of dour mid-tempo balladry.
So, what a smart idea to hire ber-nerd and unlikely Brian Eno successor Jim O'Rourke to produce Orton's Daybreaker follow-up, Comfort of Strangers. Here, however, he largely avoids the spacey atmospherics he brought to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, instead focusing on arrangements that rectify Orton's post-electronica lack of drive.
On "Safe in Your Arms," for example, O'Rourke holds the bass back until the chorus, where it lends support to Orton's dramatic but vulnerable vocal. And on "Countenance," percussionist Tim Barnes shifts subtly through rhythms as Orton meditates on the varieties of religious deception.
Of course, all the spiffy session players in the world won't save a record full of bad songs. On her best tunes, Orton captures the swinging moods inherent in fading relationships without sliding too deeply into clich. Bitter, piano-driven album-opener "Worms" quickly passes judgment on "intimacy reduced to cruelty" before fading out amid Spartan "ooh's and "ahhh's. The deceptively peppy "Shopping Trolley," the closest Comfort gets to a rocker, compares the narrator to the bum-wheeled hardware of the title.
Stumbles such as "Comfort of Strangers" and "Rectify," however, rely too heavily on the kind of coffeehouse poetry that Orton should be above. ("If you take a drop of water from the bucket / Wouldn't know / Does not show / Love is all that remains.")
Still, Comfort is the most consistent album the singer has released. Though the music maintains a glossy calm throughout, each forlorn ballad is given a feel of its own something for which O'Rourke and Barnes deserve most of the credit. Orton is a skilled songwriter in possession of a stellar voice, sure, but with any other group of musicians, she could've easily slid back into the morass of Daybreaker. It will be interesting to see which strangers will be around to comfort her when O'Rourke and Barnes are gone. ,p>capsule
Beth Orton with Willy Mason
Gothic Theatre, 3263 S. Broadway, Englewood
Sunday, March 19, 9 p.m.
Tickets: $16; call 800/965-4827 or visit nipp.com.