It's somewhat puzzling that Comfort of Strangers arrives trumpeted as a "stripped-down" Beth Orton, free of the electronica trappings of some of her earlier work. Her three previous studio albums were (arguably) overproduced, but the trip-hop atmospherics in question were usually kept to a minimum. The drum loops and processed vocals that slightly seasoned her mid-tempo songs were absent from her ballads, a template that Sarah McLachlan followed to maudlin multi-platinum success. Orton doesn't exactly sound out of place on a label such as Astralwerks, but no one confuses her oeuvre with that of, say, Portishead.
So, to toe the party line, it should be noted that the drums on Comfort of Strangers don't sound programmed. However, the real story behind the album, and what makes it quite wonderful, is producer Jim O'Rourke, an expert at freshening up artists. His presence as a full-fledged member of Sonic Youth, beginning with Murray Street (2002), brought about the band's best, most vital work since 1992's Dirty - a shockingly complete rejuvenation. His mix of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) helped demolish the alt-country barricade that walled-in Tweedy and company, resulting in a Billboard top-ten album and critical-darling status.
O'Rourke's skill in the studio is impressively multi-faceted. His engineer work with Sonic Youth emphasized melody and clarity, precisely the elements he de-emphasized with Wilco. On Comfort of Strangers, he allows Orton's songs to feel naked and organic. It's a much warmer album than her most recent album, 2002's Daybreaker, and it's perhaps her most complete album yet.
Opener "Worms" is a bouncy number that had me scrambling through the liner notes searching for Jon Brion's credit. It's Orton's tune, but Aimee Mann's and Fiona Apple's influences are felt. But its follow-up, "Countenance," is all very much Beth, and album highlight "Heartlandtruckstop" musically and lyrically evokes some of her strongest previous work.
As a songwriter, Orton is often melancholy, never dreary; often contemplative, never meandering; often heart-struck, never sappy. These new fourteen tracks delve into standard thematic territory but still feel fresh. The relationships Orton sings about, whether invigorating or destructive, whether "Absinthe" or "Safe in Your Arms," are familiar, universal even.
With a gorgeous lilt in her delivery, Orton's voice exudes youth, innocence and vulnerability, sounding like a cross between a far less mannered Dolores O'Riordan and Joni Mitchell. Her voice always sounds on the verge of cracking, yet so rarely does. Orton and O'Rourke are bold and smart enough put that voice in the spotlight, front and center, and let the songs speak for themselves. Maybe you can't dance to Comfort of Strangers, but, lying still with your headphones on, you can play it over and over again.
Astralwerks Web site