Beth Orton, Comfort of Strangers (Astralwerks, 2006)

Beth Orton first emerged with Trailer Park in 1997, and quickly gained a loyal following for her dark songs and her haunting voice. On 1999's Central Reservation and 2002's Daybreaker, Orton continued to develop and improve not just as a singer, but as an artist and as a songwriter. Those two albums rank among my favorite recordings of the past decade. With the release of her new album Comfort of Strangers, Orton finds her career at something of a crossroads. Her singing voice, once almost magical in its ability to convey raw emotion, now shows some clear signs of wear. Fortunately, Orton's artistic instincts remain very much intact, enabling Comfort of Strangers to hold its own with her previous efforts.

Orton continues to write lyrics about love and loss. Her sense of melody has gotten better with age, and her observations of the workings of the human heart remain as keen as ever. The instrumentation for Comfort of Strangers is considerably more scaled back than on Orton's previous efforts, though, with three people doing almost all of the work. Beth sings and plays acoustic guitar, but also makes her first recorded appearances on piano, electric guitar, and harmonica. Producer Jim O'Rourke plays bass, piano, and some guitar, and does a fine job of filling the musical spaces when needed but also leaving some of the spaces empty. The real star performer on the album is Tim Barnes, whose subtle drumming and percussion really shine throughout the disc. The sparseness marks a departure from Orton's usual style, but Comfort of Strangers generally works best the more that it deviates from the previous albums, particularly with uptempo songs like "Shadow of a Doubt" and "Shopping Trolley." Sadly, the more emotional material feels like it's missing something. Even the experience of listening to as a beautiful a song as "Safe In Your Arms" is tempered by the knowledge that Orton's voice could have made that song a classic a few years ago.

Long-time Beth Orton fans will probably have to listen to the album a few times to let it grow on them. I personally had a hard time getting past the difference in her voice, because I always saw that as Orton's greatest selling point, but admittedly that is not entirely fair to her as an artist. Comfort of Strangers does have its strengths, though, and shows Beth Orton to be maturing performer who still has quite a bit to offer musically.

Overall grade: B+

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