It’s difficult to classify Beth Orton. When she began her singer/songwriter career a decade ago with her debut Trailer Park she sang over electronic beats, combining folk sensibilities with danceable beats. On her newest album, Comfort of Strangers, Orton gets the help of producer Jim O’Rourke, perhaps best known for his mixing of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and his performance with legendary alternative band Sonic Youth, to achieve a richer folk sound that lets her explore the boundaries of folk music.

Comfort of Strangers starts out without even a hint of instrumental opening – a rather bizarre tactic for a folk album, but one that immediately draws in the listener. Orton seems to be channeling Fiona Apple in her bouncy delivery and somewhat bizarre subject matter over a basic baseline in “Worms.” It works wonderfully, creating a short but catchy tune that showcases Orton at her creative best.

Yet “Worms” is a bit of a departure from the rest of the album, which really focuses in on Orton’s superior songwriting abilities and angelic (if not perhaps a bit tortured voice). In “Heart of Soul” Orton implores her lover to “Put a little love in your heart/I don’t care how much religion you got” with an unprecedented vocal tenacity. “Shadow of a Doubt” describes the split of two lovers with Orton’s refrain of “You go your way, my love/you go your way.” Yet one of the more beautiful songs on the album is “Feral Children,” which begins slowly with Orton softly over the guitar and then gradually crescendos into an arrangement of lush strings, with Orton maintaining an intense but beautiful wail over the whole lot. It’s consistent with the album’s cover – a rainbow peaking out amidst a row of gray thunderclouds – and reveals the versatility Orton possesses when crafting her music.

With Comfort of Strangers, Orton creates a simple and melodic album that lets superior musical arrangements and talented voice work by Orton create a rich folk atmosphere. Will Orton achieve superstar status with Comfort of Strangers? Probably not, but does she deserve to? Absolutely.
[Bradley Vargas eats his own caca.]