Pop: This Week's Album Releases

Beth Orton Central Reservation: Heavenly

BETH ORTON'S career so far has followed a decidedly idiosyncratic path, tacking nimbly between the apparently conflicting fields of folk and house music. She initially made her name collaborating with dance- floor dynamos such as William Orbit, Andrew Weatherall and The Chemical Brothers, but her second album reveals rather more, you suspect, of her own personal taste. The only vaguely "dancey" sounds on Central Reservation occur when Everything but the Girl's Ben Watt, acknowledged master of the techno/torch-song crossover, applies a faint synthesiser backdrop and the most discreet of trip-hop breakbeats to "Stars all Seem to Weep" and one of two versions of the title-track - and even then, so subtle is his work that the change is barely perceptible.

Elsewhere, the accumulated experience of two years' work with her live band has given Orton the confidence to develop the rootsier elements of her Trailer Park debut. With its subtle instrumental tinting and relaxed double-bass underpinnings, Central Reservation more closely follows the folk-jazz contours of Tim Buckley, John Martyn or Nick Drake - one track features Buckley's old vibes player, Dave Friedman, while the husky melisma of Orton's vocals inescapably brings to mind Drake's languid charm.

The mood throughout is calm and ruminative, particularly for tracks such as "Sweetest Decline", where gently sweeping strings and the cocktail tinkle of Dr John's piano support Orton as she muses in Thomas Gray vein: "Another day slips away, and my heart sinks with the sun." The other guests are equally well chosen: the distinctive slide guitar of Ben Harper uncoils warily through a couple of tracks, and the cult soul-jazz singer Terry Callier helps out on "Pass in Time", Orton's elegy for her late mother.

"There's no right or wrong, this isn't a test, and I won't lose my experience," Orton notes on "Couldn't Cause me Harm" - as level-headed an observation as any in contemporary pop music.

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