It’s 95 degrees and I have a date with a hammock and a glass of lemonade, so let’s get this over with.
This year’s Top 10 List is already strong enough to be respectable. Wilco is pretty firmly entrenched in the top spot right now, but new contenders seem to spring up every week, including great new ones by Tom Waits, Neil Finn, Eminem, Bruce Hornsby, Michael Roe and Counting Crows. Plus, I’ve just heard that September 24 is the “official” (meaning infinitely mutable and changeable) release date for Peter Gabriel’s long-awaited Up album.
You’ll notice, however, that it feels like a boys’ club up there in the creme de la creme, with not a single female artist making an appearance so far. Honestly, the women have been holding back until the second half of the year, I think, and I expect great things from Aimee Mann this month, Sixpence None the Richer next month, and Tori Amos the month after that. And to kick off the (hopeful) avalanche of excellent releases by women is the inimitable Beth Orton.
I’ve heard some people refer to Orton as boring, and that strikes me as a minor form of blasphemy. Still, I’m trying to be more understanding and accepting in my old age, and I took my first spin through her third album, Daybreaker, with that thought in mind. And no, I’m sorry, I just don’t hear it.
For one thing, Orton has a great voice. This is not the same sense of that phrase you might use to describe your friend who’s better than the rest of the bar on karaoke night. Orton has a voice that will stop you in your tracks, the kind of voice the sirens may have used to lure unsuspecting seamen to smash themselves upon the rocks. You hear it for the first time, and all at once you want to keep hearing it, studying it, turning it over and over in your mind. All by itself, her voice is captivating enough to justify buying everything she does.
And like most great singers, Orton is most effective when she allows her voice to be the main attraction. The second half of her wonderful second album, Central Reservation, is largely just her voice and guitar, and the sound they produce together is so affecting that you can’t help but have diminishing returns when you place other instruments on top. Oddly, though, it’s those very models of sparse emotion that have been labeled the most boring of her works.
The truth of the matter seems to be that people need lots of stuff going on to keep their attention, which is why moody, drawn-out movies like In the Bedroom don’t do as well as busy, effects-laden ones like The Mummy Returns (and, yes, like Star Wars). That’s why radio concentrates on the three-minute single, and producers fill those three minutes with as much ear-catching gloss as they can. The days when Tim Buckley could hold an audience in the palm of his hand for three hours with just an acoustic guitar are long over.
Even Orton seems to realize that, which is probably why Daybreaker is her fullest, most produced album to date. There’s certainly nothing wrong with production, if done right, but nowhere on Daybreaker does Orton just let herself carry the song with her voice, and as such, it’s a less immediately seductive album than Reservation or her debut, Trailer Park. This one provokes fewer “ahhhhs” than it does “hmmmms.”
For all that, though, it’s a pretty magnificent piece of work. Daybreaker is a restless album, flitting from one style and sound to another over its 10 songs, but each one shines in its own way. Opener “Paris Street” is one of the best, with buoyant string lines complementing Orton’s soaring vocal nicely. The single “Concrete Sky” follows, and it marks the first pairing of Orton and Ryan Adams, the wunderkind from Whiskeytown. Their voices merge beautifully, and the song, though written by Orton and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, sounds like vintage Adams.
In fact, the only song not written by Orton also sounds like vintage Adams, because it is. “This One’s Gonna Bruise” finds Orton crooning Adams’ song while he accompanies on guitar, and while the tune is remarkable, I can’t help imagining Adams singing it. It’s the one spot on Daybreaker in which Orton’s glorious voice is maddeningly ineffective, and surprisingly, it’s also the one unadorned number on the album, just voice and guitar. The mismatch is puzzling.
Less puzzling, however, is the sheer impact of grand experiments like “Mount Washington,” with its ascending chorus and sweeping atmospherics, or the title song, with its fluttering electronic drums and wistful strings. “Carmella” is a tale of hope amidst a bad relationship, and I wouldn’t be all that surprised to find out that its inspiration is Carmella Soprano, from HBO’s hit series. “God Song” pairs Orton up with Emmylou Harris, and is the most classic-sounding down-home American piece the British chanteuse has ever written. Harris, Orton and Adams all merge their voices in an extended coda that sends chills.
And then there’s the closer, “Thinking About Tomorrow,” which flies higher than anything else here. In a dazzling six minutes, Orton brings the orchestra back and sends us off with a classic pop song in which everything clicks. Daybreaker contains little of the misery and confusion that marked previous efforts, and especially here in its final song, it spreads a certain kind of joy wherever it goes. It’s the sweetest album she’s ever made, capped off with the sweetest song she’s ever written.
One may accuse Orton of a lack of focus, what with 10 different styles sitting next to each other here. The truth may have more to do with the real goal of experimentation: to find something that works. Orton is neither a jazz crooner, a folk poet nor a pop songstress, but she tries all of them here, looking for a way to make her heavenly voice fit earthly styles. She possesses a love of classic songcraft, and one can hear the works of Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Emmylou Harris in her songs. That she’s a better singer than any of them may mean that she’ll have to leave her influences behind and create something wholly new before she finds that perfect fit.
For now, though, Daybreaker is a fine album, and a swell companion piece to her other two. It’s also, to my ears, miles and miles away from boring.
This means nothing, but check it out: look at the covers of Daybreaker and Trey Anastasio’s solo album side by side. The similarities are striking, aren’t they? (If you don’t own both and don’t want to go to the record store to see what I’m talking about, click on the link below to Amazon.com and call up the pages for both albums. It’s pretty eerie.)
Next week, a couple of surprises.
See you in line Tuesday morning.