Beth Orton is determined not to become the Shirley MacLaine of electronica’s Rat Pack: the talented gamin whose inclusion in a boys’ club is supposed to be evidence of the guys’ tolerance but is actually an extension of their good taste. Granted, her collaborators form a sterling lineup of great programming names, from William Orbit to the Chemical Brothers to Beck. And her folk impulses—which in this context means the imposition of classic songwriting structures on a fluid, multitracked form—do humanize the icy washes of chill-out, trance, and other nondancey techno genres in a way that can only be described as tasteful.
But Orton’s singular voice, high in register but oddly boyish, with a tingling falsetto and whiskey scratch, is virtually a scandal in the airy-fairy realms of women’s techno. Electronica likes its genders, genres, and performers in neat little boxes; that Orton doesn’t quite fit into any of them goes fairly far toward explaining why Terry Callier likes her to sing his songs. That Orton likes to examine the question of what a person can do within a song rather than around it goes even farther.
On the new Daybreaker, Orton’s third album, her all-star posse is in full effect: Victor Van Vugt does the production with help from Orbit, the Chemical Brothers, and Ben Watt, and Ryan Adams and Emmylou Harris sing along when asked. But despite the number of guests and the variety of arrangements on display, Orton favors big, straightforward instrumentation, borrowing back all of techno’s filched complications and turning them into sample-worthy string and horn tracks. This relatively simple context amplifies her strengths, usually to glorious effect.
A Greek chorus of horns pops in when needed on the swinging “Anywhere,” a string-laden pop song made for the ice-cream blondes of Burt Bacharach’s dreams but anchored by Orton’s voice at its most bruised. “Carmella” is similarly vocalcentric, Orton’s verses descending in a sparkle of plucked guitar notes and short words, each one fast and dazzling like sunlit drops of a waterfall. And “God Song,” a love ditty with regrets, finds Harris’ harmonies bringing out the sweetness in Orton’s androgynous voice, the rough undertones of which get buffed to a mellow gloss on the beautiful chorus.
Only in spots does Daybreaker pass for chill. The title track, for example, features plenty of Scott Minor-programmed outer-space special effects—the usual bleeps, bloops, and whooshes—but it transcends aural wallpaper as soon as Orton’s melody line takes a startling shift into minor-key on the chorus. “Ted’s Waltz,” by contrast, is pleasant and mutable, ready to serve either Orton’s tech or folk masters, and it waffles between the two forms in a languid space of cool melodicism.
Orton is at her best treating trance as a framework for pop and even rock. That’s not only because she has respect for songs qua songs, but she can write them. Her lyrics never fall into the singer-songwriting traps common to composers who traffic in atmospherics: tangled poesy, tedious confession, hapless apotheosizing of nature. Her images are sketched in swift, precise lines—”The sea moves as mercury to break its perfect skin,” she sings on the opener, “Paris Train”—evocations arising from small, unprepossessing intersections and shadings.
Much to Orton’s credit, the delicacy of the lyrics isn’t overpowered by the sometimes supersized arrangements. On “Paris Train,” the singer matches a crest of strings in intensity; she sounds loud and confident and sad, even when carried off on the rushing wave of the chorus. Wiftier tunes take earthier words: On “Thinking About Tomorrow,” unilateral regrets are cast in strict you-me terms.
For all her carefully modulated vocalizing, Orton has a casual way with her final syllables, especially on the more conventionally pop-rock numbers. She tends to slur off into space, as if she figures you know what she’s talking about generally and don’t need to hear any more specifics. “Mount Washington” piles up shimmering long lines of keyboard notes and sound washes over a basic drum-bass-guitar arrangement, which attenuates the already atmospheric vocals. But Adams counters this tendency with his burnished, boyish voice on “Concrete Sky,” a piano- and guitar-driven almost-country number that’s one of the most straight-ahead songs here.
Electronica has long suffered from an image problem: It’s seen as forbidding and elitist, the dance music useless to non-club kids and the ambient a bore. An artist like Moby crosses over by integrating genres recognizable to the pop mainstream as “real”—that is to say, instrument-based—into programmed schemes. Orton, by contrast, makes the jump with her voice. Everything else—whether it comes from an acoustic guitar, a plugged-in bass, a synthesizer, or a piece of software—functions in service to the human heart at the center of the music. CP