Beth Orton The Garage, London

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The Independent Culture
"This is my favourite," said Beth Orton. "It's called `Galaxy of Emptiness' and I like it because I'm a miserable cow." Backtrack to 1990, and the age of the shoegazer, and you'd be bracing yourself for a deafening wall of noise that used to have a tune attached.

Luckily, Orton doesn't play those games; her aside about misery only made you warm to her. Her dance-influenced folk was unmannered, laid back, smiling - as unfazed by buzzing gremlins in the sound system ("sounds like the south of France in here") as she was intent on getting across her songs.

Even the lead singer of the support act, Travis, the promised next-big- thing, hadn't read the manual that says that up-and-coming rock gods need attitude, not a big grin. Instead, they delivered pulsing bass lines overlain with chromatic guitar lines, tied together with honest-to-goodness tunes; even if one of their numbers was on more than nodding terms with Abba's "The Winner Takes it All". But with pop references like that, how can you fail?

Of course, there's always a danger in trying to stuff too many references into a song. Acoustic-guitar based singer/ songwriter meets the Chemical Brothers' club sound might smack of experiment for its own sake. But not with Beth Orton. She marries a folk sensibility and a gift for wistful lyricism with keyboards and shuffling drum breaks without it ever taking the easy (and these days ubiquitous) route of grafting on trip-hip rhythms as an afterthought.

The mesmerising "She Cries Your Name", for example, opened with a crescendo of soaring, giddying, treated violins, which moved on to a lament about the impermanence of love, Orton's voice resonant, yet on the edge of cracking. Another highlight was her haunting version of the Phil Spector-penned "I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine". Its sparse structure, which recalls the stripped-down arrangements that Tim Friese-Greene brought to Talk Talk, allows the beauty of the melody and lyrics to be laid bare.

That song had a clarity of purpose that was occasionally missing in her performance - all the elements were there but the net effect having all the punch (without the vocal strength) of Tanita Tikaram's folksy fare. But this is a unique and magical sound - the best antidote to the manufactured kookiness the chart demands of its female artists. And her smile is infectious.