Comfort of Strangers

Studio Album by released in 2006

Comfort of Strangers review

Comfort Of Strangers continues Orton's move away from the electronica element

Singer-songwriter Beth Orton has been blessed – or cursed, depending on how you look at it – to have collaborated with a great many artists over the course of her longer-than-you-probably-thought career (it stretches back to the early 1990s). The list is very impressive: The Chemical Brothers, Red Snapper, William Orbit, Andrew Weatherall, Terry Callier, Dr. John, Ben Watt, Johnny Marr, Ryan Adams, and Emmylou Harris, among others. And while the results of these team-ups have, for the most part, been very good indeed, they have left listeners wondering: Who exactly is the real Beth Orton? Her latest collaboration – with the equally chameleonesque Jim O’Rourke (known for his work with Sonic Youth and Wilco) – could have shed any further light on Orton’s true musical identity. But it turns out that O’Rourke, rather than coating Orton’s honey-and-gravel voice in sonic debris or freaky guitar squall, turns out to be the perfect collaborator. Comfort Of Strangers, the fourth album from cult British songstress continues Orton's move away from the electronica element with which she began her career to a more traditional alt-folk sound. While not particularly challenging or showing notable evolution since her previous disc, 2002's Daybreak, Comfort Of Strangers is certainly a reflective listen.

Jim O'Rourke manages to bring some interesting arrangements to Orton’s compositions

Comfort Of Strangers opens with Worms, a song possessing a deliberate cadence and urban snap akin to something generating royalties for Fiona Apple. What’s going on here? Where’s the wistful, reservedly introspective Orton sound her base has grown accustomed to? Not to worry, faithful listeners: the subsequent track, the lovely, comparatively sedate Countenance, bears all the familiar Orton hallmarks – gorgeous voice, emotional delivery, and clever but not showoff-y lyricism. Jim O'Rourke manages to bring some interesting arrangements to Orton’s compositions (the attention-grabbing opener and the rumbling train beat of Rectify being two exemplary examples) without overcrowding the British singer-songwriter’s personal space. Title song Comfort Of Strangers features Orton playing guitar, piano and harmonica to a soft percussion track, and has a captivating autobiographical flavor. Most of the musical dynamic features piano or guitar over an elemental, insistent rhythm section, making the coloring of an occasional string section (Conceived), harmonica (Absinthe), or accordion (Safe in Your Arms) all the more striking. As an indication of the emotional range of this musical minimalism, the title cut is soothing enough to please fans of Norah Jones, while Heartlandstruckstop is as edgy as Patti Smith.

Orton's vocals reign over all other sounds on Comfort of Strangers

Orton has put down 14 story-telling tracks, recorded in just two weeks in New York. These songs breathe, and that's something that Orton’s past partners haven’t let her consistently do. With a basic line-up of Tim Barnes on drums, O’Rourke on bass, piano, and the odd marimba, and Orton on guitar, piano, and harmonica, Comfort Of Strangers sticks with one sound and is all the stronger for it. Perhaps the most shocking instrument here is a stray organ, and considering some of the overproduction on Orton’s past albums, less is most definitely more. Orton's vocals – so arced and mellifluous – reign over all other sounds on Comfort Of Strangers. On Daybreaker, her voice sounded like an empty vessel, beautiful but conveying very little; here it has a very real personality behind it, one that allows itself to be angry, cynical, hopeful, and snide – a complex and compelling emotional mess. This attitude fits her songwriting well, giving her words added resonance. Comfort Of Strangers is an all-round enchanting offering from one of our best alternative voices, which may not win many new fans but will no doubt delight the old. Wherever Beth Orton’s musical travels take her from here on out, Comfort Of Strangers will remain a touchstone; a crystal-clear, untouchable portrait of her art and soul.