Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Most listeners’ introduction to Beth Orton came via her contributions to albums by William Orbit, Red Snaper or The Chemical Brothers — three electronic acts with seemingly little connection to lushly orchestrated folk. Yet ever since her proper debut album Trailer Park in 1996, the English singer-songwriter has found a graceful balance between the electronic beats that once thumped beneath her expressive vocals and a gentler, more graceful folk songwriting style. She may not have been the first artist on the receiving end of the now-overused “folktronica” tag, but it’s more or less exactly what she did, boiled down to a neat and tidy portmanteau.
With the release of 2006’s Comfort Of Strangers, however, Orton began to distance herself a bit from the trip-hop beats that cradled her gentle melodies, and gradually made her way toward an organic, rich style. Six years later, on Sugaring Season, she completes the transformation, offering up an album of songs that bear hardly any of the clicks and whooshes that underscored her earlier work, instead building up complex arrangements from guitars, pianos, strings and organs, harkening back to the richly arranged works of British folk icons like Pentangle and Fairport Convention.
There’s a tremble to Orton’s bluesy rasp on highlight “Something More Beautiful,” a gentle ballad that opens starkly, yet gracefully. Yet by the one-minute mark, it swells to an emotional wash of strings, in the course of 60 brief seconds revealing Orton both at her barest and her most triumphant. Most of the ten tracks on the album don’t possess this kind of dramatic sweep, and it’s for the best — too much drama would only overtake the subtler, yet no less stunning highlights, from the breezy “Dawn Chorus” to the ornate, minor key melancholy of “Magpie,” an ominously defiant opener punctuated with the recurring line, “I won’t turn back now for anyone.”
Most impressive are the moments on Sugaring Season in which Orton allows her songs to creep slowly and intently from darkly sinister folk tunes into works of haunted majesty, chief among them “Candles.” It’s an awe-inspiring gem of gothic proportions, easily among the best songs she’s ever written. Despite a half decade of keeping relatively quiet, Orton has emerged with a fresh approach, and a batch of songs both intricately gorgeous and, more importantly, a hearty distance from familiar.