SUGARING SEASON (2012)
1) Magpie; 2) Dawn Chorus; 3) Candles; 4) Something More Beautiful; 5) Call Me The Breeze; 6) Poison Tree; 7) See Through Blue; 8) Last Leaves Of Autumn; 9) State Of Grace; 10) Mystery.
Beth Orton's first new album in seven years, and seven years without an album is no laughing matter: if anything, it makes you predisposed to the idea that maybe the artist really has something to say, if it took him/her seven years to say it. On the other hand, everything that we already knew about Beth Orton sort of predisposed us to the idea that it would be rash to expect a good album from somebody who'd consciously ditched her chief know-how in favor of a third-rate singer-songwriter career. All in all, an intriguing situation — at least until you tear your gaze from the pretty / intelligent profile on the sleeve cover and start playing the actual music.
The best thing I can say about the music is that it is at least significantly more involving than Comfort Of Strangers. The folksy arrangements are not as lethargic or minimalistic this time around; there is a decent rhythm section that can keep it steady or get in a little swing mode if necessary, there are some dynamic string arrangements, and she seems to have spent more time working out the hooks. In other words, the songs at least try to flutter and thrash around rather than just sink to the bottom in one go. Unfortunately, about half of them now end up sounding like uninventive imitations of early Joni Mitchell — and once again, I have trouble understanding what exactly about them belongs to Beth Orton, the Artist of Her Own Persuasion.
A whole three singles (as opposed to a maximum of two) were culled from the album, so let us try and concentrate on these. ʽSomething More Beautifulʼ is one of the slowest and «downiest» numbers on the record — a transparent sign that «commercialism» is farther from the artist's mind than ever before. Unfortunately, it is simply bad. Oversung (drenched in breathy glottal stops — "in what you belee-hh-eeve" — so we do not make a dreadful mistake thinking that the song was not recorded soon after a hysterical crying fit), overpunctuated by Pathetic String Bursts at the start of each chorus, and yet lacking anything resembling a proper hook, it's 100% atmosphere, pumped up after a traditional, predictable recipé.
ʽMagpieʼ, which was used to open the album, is a straightforward attempt at writing in the old folk style, musically and lyrically, and since it does not pretend to the status of «grand tragedy», like ʽSomething More Beautifulʼ does, it is far easier to enjoy, with a nice «depressed-but-not-suicidal» flavor to the vocals. The major hookline ("what a lie, what a lie...") sounds like it's been lifted from The Cranberries (in fact, as the years go by, Beth sounds more and more like a technically weaker counterpart of Dolores O'Riordan), but when we are talking folksy singer-songwriting, such observations can never be spoken in an accusative tone anyway.
The third, and best, single was ʽCall Me The Breezeʼ — not a J. J. Cale cover (as fun as it would be for Beth to cover J. J. Cale), but an original composition, something of a humble pantheistic anthem ("call me the earth, call me the stars...") set to a lively folk-pop rhythm and peppered with light, ghostly, but friendly vocals. Maybe if there were more songs like this on the album, its diagnostic facial features would have finally begun to emerge — it is like a soft «country rondeau» with a cool combination of guitars, percussion, and electric organ and without any self-aggrandizing pathos to turn off the seasoned listener.
Alas, such is not the case: the overall proportions of bad to mediocre to nice on Sugaring Season are more or less the same as in the singles subarray, and there is no incentive for me to talk about the rest. Essentially, we are dealing here with just another out of the miriad «neo-folk» records, which would have probably sunk like a stone if not for the artist's enduring reputation that was earned with far more interesting work — think Eric Clapton, if you wish, the difference being that the latter could at least always offer redemption for his tepid studio output on the stage, while Beth has pretty much disowned her entire «folktronica» legacy and is now insisting on persisting as a second-rate neo-folkie. Of course, seasoned lovers of this style will always find ten thousand subtle reasons why Sugaring Season has its own charm, quite different from that of Joni, Sandy, or Emmylou — but I honestly see no sense in wrecking my brain over what any of those reasons could be. As far as I'm concerned, she is simply not cut out for this line of work.