Beth Orton, The Spitz, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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"Hello. I'm hiding," Beth Orton introduces herself, as she begins singing from an invisible point somewhere on the stage.

Hiding in plain sight has been her forte. Her first two albums, Trailer Park (1996) and Central Reservation (1999), earned two Mercury nominations and a Brit for the latter, as well as the soubriquet "the Comedown Queen" for her William Orbit-assisted splicing of folkie acoustic melancholy and dance culture.

Since then, her star has faded, as a third album, Daybreaker (2002), won few new fans. The dance influences have fallen away but, headlining a festival of the alt.folk scene last year, she seemed too mainstream to fit into that either.

So her new album, Comfort of Strangers, previewed at length in this small club tonight, is a crucial test. Full of taut hurt, it proves her value is far beyond coffee-table comforters such as Dido. In person, Orton's gawky charm, defensiveness and open-hearted power remains alluring.

Her voice is ballsier than the fey folk thing. Words sometimes leap out with startling force. Comfort of Strangers seems to demand such draining strength, as its songs describe elemental romance: "I'd rather have no love, than mix it with the wrong stuff."

"Shadow of Doubt" sketches the realisation that a romance is over, finding strength in letting go. "Shopping Trolley" celebrates such release, as stars collide in the sky, tears make time pass, and the cosmic, natural flow of folk is hitched to a brief love affair.

Rolling her hips and looking at us with assessing directness, this is where Orton leaves pretenders to her Comedown Queen throne in the dust. "Heart and Soul", in which she roars, "where is the love in your heart ?" at a failed lover, angry at his lack of nerve, and boiling with predatory feminine vengeance, turns would-be rivals to ash.

Against this comes Orton's other side, the nervous soul who spends minutes tuning up after songs, cracking jokes and broadening the Norfolk accent of her childhood, acting the goofy little girl.

"It's so feminine, isn't it?" a woman murmurs, sensing a put-on. Orton mentions two weeks without sleep, recalling the health problems that have dogged her. If she had sustained her early success, the indulgence she's allowed might have been denied. But when her gasping voice takes over, indulgence seems the last thing she needs. It taps a wild resource her little-girl act may be protection from - for her, and for us.

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