Beth Orton

Comfort of Strangers
(Astralwerks)

In the late '90s, the suffix "-tronica" could loosely be defined as "pop music to which drum loops have been glued." It was a goofy movement, one built on the questionable logic that adding a bunch of synthetic clatter to mealy AM acoustic pop somehow makes it less dull. British songwriter Beth Orton was the genre's archetype, a kind of pre-Dido Dido whose Suzanne-slash-Alan Vega single "She Cries Your Name" blew holes through the subwoofers of thousands of Volvos in every college town in America. Zeitgeist is a bitch, though, and pulling out of a culture hole sometimes requires a little help; for Orton that help comes from the Midwest. Comfort was produced by Chicago avant-lord Jim O'Rourke, and it's easy to spot his fingerprints. The record percolates like a coffeepot, full of muted drums, burbling bass, and organs that sound like wind chimes. It could have come off as a pantomime, but miraculously O'Rourke's minimal production gives the record a kind of weight and grace and dignity. The spare, stop-start rhythm of "Conceived" serves as foreground to Orton's voice, giving it a frailty that heretofore had been lacking. Ditto "Heartland Truckstop," with its pinwheel of guitar and cascading piano. The trouble is, while Orton has managed admirably to rein in her penchant for sentiment, at times it's a force too powerful to resist. "Feral Children" plays like granola Joni Mitchell, and the pleas to "put a little love in your heart" that are the axle for "Heart of Soul" are both well-worn and painfully pained. Comfort is a freeze-frame resurrection, stumbling toward epiphany but falling sadly short.

 
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