Album: Beth Orton <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Comfort of Strangers, EMI
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The Independent Culture

For her first album since 2002's Daybreaker, Beth Orton has replaced her long-time producer Victor Van Vugt with the omni-talented Jim O'Rourke. Though most recently celebrated as the newest addition to Sonic Youth, O'Rourke has a broad-church approach to music that draws on forms as disparate as Bacharach and bossa nova, soft-rock and psychedelia, art-rock and electronica, traditional Americana and the furthest reaches of the classical avant-garde - not a lot of which sounds like an advantage when it comes to recording an introspective singer-songwriter such as Orton.

For the most part, he keeps things plain and simple, dabbing watercolour tints of piano behind Orton's delicate guitar picking, with just the subtlest of puttering rhythmic accents from percussionist Tim Barnes driving the songs. Occasionally, O'Rourke adds a splash of instrumental colour - the marimba on the title-track, the brief dulcimer break in "Conceived" - that brings a welcome shaft of light into Orton's crepuscular world. Less successfully, Barnes once or twice tries to rock things up a little harder, dragging the singer into territory ill-suited to her natural diffidence.

As before, Orton's songs are mostly about love and life, and our place in the world. In "Worms", she reflects on the involuntary shortcomings of worms, chickens and, by extension, man; in "Conceived", affection is considered the best way to face an uncertain future ("We learn to be a warm sun in a very cold galaxy"). Like many a folk musician, she's animated by the plight of the poor and marginalised: "There are no rights for many, the ones already down," she frets in "Countenance".

Later, in "Feral Children", she marvels at the survival instincts of orphans forced to fend for themselves: "Feral children hear what no one knows/ There's no words for the infinity of ghosts". The message seems somewhat fatalistic, though, Orton appearing to advocate resignation to one's station, satisfaction with one's own "reflection of god's countenance" - hardly a clarion call to rally round.

Elsewhere, love and loss exercise her, whether she's yearning for emotional security in "Safe in Your Arms", marvelling at the transformative power of love in "Rectify", or bidding firm adieu to an old flame in "Shadow of a Doubt". Likeable though some of these pieces are, she reveals less than might be expected. That's hardly surprising, given her confession in "Heartland Truckstop" that she "don't want nobody knowing how the hurt in me works". It doesn't make a good foundation for confessional songwriting.

DOWNLOAD THIS: 'Shadow of a Doubt', 'Heartland Truckstop', 'Comfort of Strangers'

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