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Beth Orton

Born Elizabeth Caroline Orton, 14 December 1970, East Dereham in Norfolk, the unassuming BETH ORTON has been at the pinnacle of the “folktronica” genre, although a reluctant heroine of sorts. A one-time Buddhist nun after her political activist single mother died of cancer in 1989, she was brought up in the London district of Dalston from the age of fourteen; her father left the family home when Beth was eleven and subsequently died shortly afterwards.
Her meeting at a party with technoid legend WILLIAM ORBIT (soon to be her beau) led to work with his Strange Cargo project. Her voice/vocal contributions on the track `Water From A Vine Leaf’, preceded their collaborative cover of JOHN MARTYN’s `Don’t Wanna Know ‘Bout Evil’ (initially under the Spill moniker) and the opener on Japanese-only SUPERPINKYMANDY (1993) {*5} CD (named after her childhood dolly), which contained an early version of the ORTON/Orbit gem `She Cries Your Name’.
Consequently heard by in-vogue electronica boffins The CHEMICAL BROTHERS (and later RED SNAPPER’s Ted Barnes and Ali Friend), her downbeat but poignant vocals were utilized on the duo’s groundbreaking 1995 album `Exit Planet Dust’ (for tracks `Alive Alone’ and `One Too Many Mornings’), while she continued to work with Strange Cargo set `Hinterland’ the same year. Almost immediately, the solo Beth found herself on the books of Heavenly Records. Her debut single `I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine’ was re-vamp of a RONETTES hit from the 60s; `She Cries Your Name’ tracked it but never charted this time around, while parent “debut” album, TRAILER PARK (1996) {*9} was issued shorty afterwards.
An affecting blend of fragile folk and subtle lo-fi trip-hop rhythms, it won praise from such diverse camps as fRoots magazine and Mixmag (it was even nominated for the 1997 Mercury Music Prize). Beth’s singles `Touch Me With Your Love’, `Someone’s Daughter’ and the aforementioned re-release of `She Cries Your Name’ (a song revealing the melancholy depths of her NICK DRAKE/SANDY DENNY-esque muse) scored successively higher chart placing. The lanky ORTON (she’s six feet tall) ended the year on a high note, collaborating with her long-time hero, TERRY CALLIER on the Top 40 EP `Best Bit’.
The princess of bedsitter music served up a second helping of rich, thought-provoking tunes in the shape of 1999’s CENTRAL RESERVATION {*8}. A deserved Top 20 entry (with guest appearances from BEN WATT, BEN HARPER, Dave Roback and DR. JOHN), Beth also made some headway in the States where she had befriended BECK (to name-check but a few). Songs such as `Stolen Car’, the title track (both Top 40 hits) and `Stars All Seem To Weep’ were “emotionally and lyrically attuned like paintings set on the deepest canvas taking every colour imaginable from palettes of silver” – as one pundit put it.
DAYBREAKER (2002) {*6} paired ORTON’s girl-next-door lilt with yet more A-list artists: RYAN ADAMS on `Concrete Sky’, plus ADAMS (again) and EMMYLOU HARRIS harmonising on `God Song’; while The CHEMICAL BROTHERS returned to electro-fi the title track. While the swooning production came courtesy of EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL’s mainman Ben Watt, there was the sense that the girlish folkie was finally outgrowing her growing pains. While critics were divided on its sombre merits, the record made the UK Top 10, the highest charting record of her career.
Album number four (not counting her false start in Japan), COMFORT OF STRANGERS (2006) {*7}, with its end-of-the-rainbow sleeve art, was an altogether brighter sounding record. Produced by the ubiquitous JIM O’ROURKE, it found ORTON finally taking on the singer-songwriter mantle she’d been skirting throughout her career. While its UK Top 30 chart placing was perhaps a little disappointing, the album marked her first entry in the US Top 100, appropriate enough given the critical comparisons to classic Topanga Canyon.
Conspicuous by her absence; it was all down to her having her first daughter by recent hubby SAM AMIDON, she did perform on stage a handful of times, one in particular was her 2009 Mojo party gig at the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell. Contemplating retiring from music altogether, Beth was enticed back to work for 2012’s SUGARING SEASON {*7}. Produced by Tucker Martine in Portland, Oregon, it saw her working with the likes of M WARD, Tom Rowlands on respective tracks, `Something More Beautiful’ and `Call Me The Breeze’. As desolate and bleak as her previous work, the passionate alt-folk singer was in her element on `Magpie’, `Candles’ and `See Through Blue’, while a star-studded guest cast included guitarist Marc Ribot, violinist Eyvind Kang and her hubby AMIDON; her band comprised Brian Blade (drums), Sebastian Steinberg (bass) and Rob Burger (keyboards). If there was ever an artist to combine the graceful sound of JONI MITCHELL and the gloom-laden NICK DRAKE, then Beth was yer girl.
Now resident in southern California, ORTON called upon both FUCK BUTTONS man Andrew Hung and seasoned mixing engineer David Wrench for 2016’s psychedelic folktronic exercise KIDSTICKS {*6}. Awash with propulsive polyrhythms to complement Beth’s kinetic but loopy larynx (think DUSTY fronting DAFT PUNK for the sensual `Flesh And Blood’, or SINEAD collaborating with The ORB on the gorgeous `Petals’), one can re-imagine an “In The Garden” ANNIE LENNOX for highlights `Moon’, `1973’ and `Dawnstar’. Exploratory and ambitious, the brave Beth has to be commended for her musical magma, although just scraping into the Top 40 didn’t quite tick all the right boxes for the buying public.
© MC Strong 1998-2011/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2013-Jun2016

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