Warning: Reading record reviews may be hazardous to your aural health.
But don't expect the surgeon general to require this warning on magazine
covers, websites and MTV promos anytime soon. For now, you're on your
own. Be warned that the aftermath of digesting the critical din can be a
loss of ability to hear a record for what it is, powerlessness in
separating fresh from stale, hype from hip, quality from crap.
Pop-culture pundits spout off all the time about trends, hoping to be
the one that comes up with the "it" word to describe a genre:
electronica, Americana, trip-hop, cuddle-core. There's an elite cadre of
music critics that write to impress one another, and more than a few of
them are guilty of fanciful flights that find them overintellectualizing
rock 'n' roll, invoking literary figures and philosophers without any provocation.
Perhaps they're trying to prove they're doing something meaningful with
their lives. Whatever their motivations, let the record-buying public
beware and take those proclamations from on-high as the mildly
interesting posturings that they are.
Which brings us -- finally -- to Beth Orton. When her album Trailer
Park came out in 1997, critics went plumb loco over the perceived
blending of folk and electronica. "The first true union of dance music
and the singer/songwriter sensibility," raved SPIN. "Marriage of
folk's soul to the wired world of electronic dance music -- Nick Drake
meets the Orb," burbled Interview. Well, to my ear, Orton's sound doesn't have much in common with folk, and the hint of electronic gadgetry that snaked through Trailer Park was the least interesting thing about the album.
It's the same deal with her new album, Central Reservation. Yes,
the British singer/songwriter has worked with electronica poster
children the Chemical Brothers in the past. But so what? Listening to
"Central Reservation," it's the delicate guitar work and evocative
crooning of her melodic voice that stand out. OK, it's true that there's
subtle use of the occasional sound effect to emphasize her often
murmuring vocal style, which sounds a bit like Ricki Lee Jones on some
tracks and a tad like Joni Mitchell on others, with just a hint of Dusty
Springfield thrown in for kicks. And yes, the production here is lush
and layered. But electronica? No way. Folk? Not even close.
The opening track, "Stolen Car," is among the strongest on the album,
and the lead-in contains -- yes -- some dance-influenced keyboard
noodling. I guess since Orton's got a knack for stringing words together
to weave stories she gets slapped with the "folk" label, but her style
is distinctive and doesn't even faintly resemble traditional folk. She's
given to musing with her lyrics and thinking aloud lines like "every
line speaks the language of love/ but never had the meaning I was
On occasion, Orton gets tripped up by her own voice, drawing notes out
until they're teetering on the edge of self-indulgence. And while the
production mostly enhances her songs, there are times -- like on the
song "Stars All Seem To Weep" -- when the layers of instruments and
effects end up sounding syrupy rather than succulent. But these are
quibbles. Whether she gets filed under electronica, folk, alternative or
flavor-of-the-week, Beth Orton's latest transcends rock-crit hyperbole.
It's just a good record that would sound nice on the stereo on a rainy
day, so long as you're cozied up safe and warm. I haven't the faintest
idea what Nietzsche or Sartre would make of that, and I don't much care.