Beth Orton

TrackAlbum / EP
She Cries Your NameTrailer Park
Best BitBest Bit EP
Pass In TimeCentral Reservation
Central Reservation
(The Then Again Version)
Central Reservation
Anywhere
(Two Lone Swordsmen Remix Vocal)
The Other Side Of Daybreak
Concrete Sky (Acoustic Version)The Other Side Of Daybreak
Bobby GentryThe Other Side Of Daybreak
CountenanceComfort Of Strangers
Poison TreeSugaring Season
DawnstarKidsticks

Beth Orton photo 1

 

 

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Beth Orton playlist

 

 

 

Contributor: Justine Harvey

While groups with guitars dominate my music collection, there are some singer-songwriters in there too and Beth Orton is the female singer-songwriter that I’ve listened to most. There is something about her voice that I love – a fragility to it that affects me in a way that the big-voiced belters don’t. And throughout her career she has worked with an enviable roster of producers and musicians. I’ve limited my selection here to songs released under her own name (rather than as guest vocalist on other people’s songs) and not included any cover versions, although there is enough material there for another strong 10.

She Cries Your Name was the first Beth Orton song I remember hearing, although her voice (if not her name) was already familiar to me from her guest appearances on Chemical Brothers’ tracks. The song exists in an earlier form on a William Orbit album but the version on her album Trailer Park is better, a more fully realised song, rather than just a repeated refrain over an electronica tune. Even now, nearly 24 years after its first release, it stops me in my tracks if it comes on the radio. I listened to Trailer Park repeatedly when it came out and still don’t think there is a duff track on there – so, paralysed by indecision (and hoping to reflect her career so far), I’ve only ended up selecting one song from it.

After Trailer Park came the Best Bit EP. For a long time I considered the title track Best Bit my favourite Beth Orton song. I’ve waivered in that certainty a bit, realising just how much I love a lot of her songs, but it was still the first one on this list and it was never under threat of not making the cut. It combines a catchy melody with lyrics of heartbreaking poignancy about dealing with her mother dying, which seems to have influenced some of her best work.

The EP also includes two duets with soul/jazz/folk musician Terry Callier – a cover of Fred Neil’s Dolphins and a version of Callier’s own song Lean On Me – both gorgeous. Callier pops up again on Pass In Time – the centrepiece of Orton’s second album Central Reservation. Over seven minutes long, it is another song inspired by the death of her mother. Beth sings about the advice her mother gave her about love, grief and making the most of life, with Callier providing soulful backing vocals on the chorus. I’ve been riled (as people often are when others don’t appreciate their favourites) when Beth Orton has been dismissed as ‘coffee table music’ – clearly by people who’ve either not heard Pass In Time and Best Bit or have hearts of stone.

The other description I’ve seen given to Beth Orton is ‘the comedown queen’ – and this one I think may have some merit. It is no doubt largely based on her work with the Chemical Brothers, having provided vocals on three of their more laid-back album tracks. The song Central Reservation may also play a part in this with its opening lyrics about walking down the central reservation in last night’s red dress – the ultimate morning-after-the-night-before lyrics. There are two versions of the song on the album – the original and ‘The Then Again Version’ which I may just prefer – a lightly jazzy mix produced by Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl fame.

And on the topic of remixes, my next choice is Anywhere – Two Lone Swordsmen Remix Vocal. The original appeared on her third album Daybreaker but this version comes from The Other Side Of Daybreak, a brilliant album of remixes, B-sides and alternative versions. I much prefer this version but it isn’t really that surprising given that Andrew Weatherall had a hand in it – Beth’s vocal is set to what I can only describe as his trademark squelchy dub beats.

In contrast, another favourite from The Other Side Of Daybreak is the acoustic version of Concrete Sky. Again, I prefer this version, despite Johnny Marr doing the guitar on the version on Daybreaker, but sometimes Beth’s vocal doesn’t need anything more than a gentle acoustic guitar beneath it.

The single release of Concrete Sky included the song Bobby Gentry on the B-side – and it is my third selection from The Other Side Of Daybreak compilation. Despite the variation on spelling, the song title is a reference to the singer Bobbie Gentry, who must be an influence on any female singer with country/folk leanings. More recently Beth was one of the guest vocalists on Mercury Rev’s Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited, a reimagining of her classic album.

My final three selections demonstrate the variety in Beth Orton’s later releases. Her fourth album Comfort Of Strangers has more of an alt-country feel to it – so far from ‘coffee table’, like much of Beth’s output, it is best enjoyed outside in a field, meadow or overgrown lawn (as I have been putting this list together). I’ve gone back and forward so many times on what to include from here, torn between the opening three tracks. Finally, I settled on Countenance, a song where she really ‘gives it some’ for want of a better description with her singing.

Fifth album Sugaring Season has even more of a folk sound so let’s go with the most folky song on there, Poison Tree. While there is a definite Americana sound to Countenance and other songs on Comfort Of Strangers, this has a very traditional English folk vibe to it, songs rich in folklore and superstition, passed down through families. It is a far cry from the young woman singing about her soiled dress and shows how Orton has explored different sounds over her career.

My final pick is back in more familiar territory. Her most recent album Kidsticks is a return to a more ‘folktronic’ style and Dawnstar is the standout track for me. A love song with ethereal vocals over a mellow electronic track, it reminds me of The State We’re In, my favourite of her collaborations with the Chemical Brothers, but a more optimistic version. A reflection of an artist more certain of herself, content with her place in the world.

 

 

APPENDIX

Although I did just focus on original songs released under her own name above, Beth Orton has made such a huge range of guest appearances, duets and cover versions that it seems a shame to ignore that completely – so here is a quick alternative Toppermost:

1. Don’t Wanna Know ‘Bout Evil – as Spill (with William Orbit) – John Martyn cover
2. Where Do I Begin – Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole
3. I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine – Trailer Park – Ronettes cover
4. Dolphins – Best Bit EP – Fred Neil cover
5. The State We’re In – Chemical Brothers – Come With Us
6. When The Sun Comes Up – Bert Jansch – The Black Swan
7. You Better Mind – Sam Amidon – I See The Sign
8. Your Kisses Burn – Mark Lanegan & Beth Orton single– Marc Almond cover
9. I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain – Beth Orton and Chemical Brothers single – Tim Buckley cover
10. Courtyard – Mercury Rev – Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete Revisited

Beth Orton photo 2

Beth Orton & Mark Lanegan

 

Beth Orton studio albums and EPs: Trailer Park (1996), Best Bit (1997 EP), Central Reservation (1999), Daybreaker (2002), Concrete Sky (2002 EP), The Other Side Of Daybreak (2003 compilation), Comfort Of Strangers (2006), Sugaring Season (2012), Kidsticks (2016)

 

Beth Orton official website

Beth Orton – fan site (up to 2016) – includes discography

Beth Orton biography (AllMusic)

Having written about topics ranging from baby car seats to housing policy, Justine Harvey now mainly writes about theatre buildings for work or her passion for outdoor swimming. Writing about music has made a nice change. She is on Twitter @seatinthestalls and Instagram @justinefharvey

Justine’s other posts for this site include: Chemical Brothers, Primal Scream, Richmond Fontaine, Wonder Stuff

TopperPost #881

4 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jun 29, 2020

    Justine, thanks for this great piece – Beth is such a brilliant singer. Trailer Park and Central Reservation are two of my favourite – and most played – albums of the 90s. Might have to have ‘Galaxy Of Emptiness’ in my top ten though. And probably her version of ‘Katie Cruel’ with Bert Jansch in the Covers section…

  2. Swiss Adam
    Jun 30, 2020

    Good piece . The TLS remix of Anywhere is amazing and Bobby Gentry is superb. As Andrew says I’d have to include Galaxy Of Emptiness, 10 sublime (Weatherall produced) minutes

  3. Mark G
    Jun 30, 2020

    I think you have missed out “Heart of Soul”, but I guess you’d have to lose one, and I can’t even..

  4. Glenn Smith
    Jul 5, 2020

    Interesting list and great overview. I started with Trailer Park after hearing I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine on Triple J, put the cd on and was blown away by She Cries Your Name, up there with the best track 1’s of all time. She was in a stellar lineup in the 2000 Big Day Out, I saw her between Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros and Basement Jaxx…and she stood out! I’d have to have Touch Me with Your Love, the way it builds, she comes in late, low key and takes you for a ride, beautiful song, my wife and I love it on car trips. Ditto Stars All Seem to Weep on Central Res, another household favourite for heading down the south coast. Thanks so much for this, great that Beth deservedly got a topper,

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