“You can ask any old friend of mine: I’m a f••ing comedian, a fun guy, and that’s what most people thought I’d become; not Old Misery Guts,” British singer/songwriter Beth Orton recently confessed to Believer magazine.
It’s true that every interviewer claims the 6-foot-tall musician is almost punchy, always cracking jokes and telling crazy stories.
But viewing her only from her strange, overexposed album-cover images, where she’s gazing into unfathomable distances through splintered light … well, she looks pretty pensive. And then to listen to Orton’s songs, her throaty voice, ambling melodies and watery instrumental passages … let’s just say she’s no Dee Lite.
Which is not to imply that groove isn’t in this singer’s heart.
Although it’s probably an unpopular opinion, my favorite song on Orton’s daybreaker (EMI, 2002) is “Anywhere.” (A more recent disc, the other side of daybreak (EMI, 2003), offers remixes of daybreaker songs.)
“Anywhere” marks a true departure — not so much in context, because this is one angsty number, but in style. The song has a jazzy feel a la Steely Dan or Sade or, even better yet, Everything But the Girl.
Which makes sense, because EBTG songwriter and producer Ben Watt had his hand in the arrangement, production and mixing of “Anywhere,” a glossier tune than many on daybreaker. Orton’s voice, by turns rich and raw, melds into the slick sounds laid down by the studio musicians.
But the rest of the album, although it’s a singer/songwriter effort, wanders far from conventional folk. Yeah, there’s acoustic guitar, but there are also danceable beats and electronic loops — a throwback to the singer’s far-fetched early dalliances in the dance-music world.
Hanging out in the clubs, Orton met and befriended electronica pioneer William Orbit, and the two began to collaborate musically. They jointly created a Japan-only release before he went on to futurize Madonna’s career with Ray of Light, and Orton was approached by the then newly contrived Chemical Brothers to sing the song “Alive Alone” on the trendy producers’ debut album.
According to Jeremy R. Bromley’s fansite (www.beth-orton.uk.co), the singer suffered hysterical blindness for a week after her first stint as a professional vocalist. For a while, it did appear that Orton would languish in obscurity (if not the dark); however, in ’96 she released her first solo effort, Trailer Park (Dedicated), followed by the transcendent Central Reservation (Arista, 1999).
Somewhere along the way, Orton sort of fell into her own sound, coined “folktronica,” and she’s managed to stay true to that slightly skewed vision of folk-meets-dance-floor.
“It was funny: As I worked with dance producers, I was writing acoustic songs,” she explained in a VH-1 interview.
My second favorite song on daybreaker is the haunting, lilting “Carmella,” starred by the spooky chorus: “What they say about you is true.” It’s the distinctive way the singer’s voice dips and soars, the rhyming verse atmospherically tripping off her tongue. The sonic layering is so Orton, with fuzzy, driving drums and crystal-clear slide guitar courtesy of hip rock accouterment Ryan Adams.
That’s right: Orton’s Euro-chic version of acoustic clicked with another critically acclaimed genre-crosser, and she invited the edgy Americana It Boy to accompany her on the song “Concrete Sky.” Adams next penned “This One’s Gonna Bruise” exclusively for Orton.
“I thought he was an ass when I first met him,” she revealed in the VH-1 interview. “Then we got in the studio and he was wonderful.”
But when pressed for details of a possible romance, the usually chatty musician turned bristly.
“All anyone needs to worry about is what they hear when they listen to the music,” she blustered. “It was definitely a very strong musical connection, which is obvious when you hear the songs.”
Beth Orton headlines The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 10; M. Ward opens the show. Tickets are $20 ($18/advance). For more information, call 225-5851.