It’s said a change is as good as a rest. In the case of Beth Orton, whose latest release, Sugaring Season, comes after a six-year hiatus, a rest is as good as a change. Since breaking through with her solo debut, Trailer Park, in 1996, the British singer-songwriter has always had a quality edge to her work. Now refreshed and recharged by a break that made time for marriage and motherhood, Orton is back with a new record that marks a transition from her electronica-fused roots to a richer, pastoral sound. It pays dues in its jazz inflections to Joni Mitchell and Pentangle and in many of its folk tones to the late Sandy Denny.
Opener Magpie sees Orton swooping around the register, playing with octaves over an intricate and increasingly intense string-driven backing. The arrangement is more than a nod to Ortons friendship and collaboration with Bert Jansch. The lilting Dawn Chorus that follows is a far mellower mood changer, decorated by understated accordion, which balances Ortons softer vocal perfectly. Such touches are dotted all over the record, and producer Tucker Martine deserves credit for blending the best of British and Oregon folk. Equally impressive, Ortons accomplished band, augmented by a potpourri of imaginative strings and instrumentation, adds color and texture without swamping Ortons intimate contemplations.
One of the strengths of this album is how Orton alternates moods while maintaining a sense of pace, an underlying heartbeat that unifies everything. Even the brief waltz-time oddity of See Through Blue seems to fit in. Each song stands out on its own merits, but two hit rarefied air. Bursts of raw emotion elevate simple piano ballad Something More Beautiful, while on ethereal closer Mystery, Ortons voice is pure fragility yet as ripe as bruised windfall.
Essential Tracks: Mystery, Magpie, and Something More Beautiful