Beth Orton – Kidsticks
The return of the prodigal daughter and it’s a good ‘un. Louder Than War’s Joe Whyte reviews.
Beth Orton first hit the consciousness of many with her collaborations in the early 90’s with William Orbit, Red Snapper, Andrew Weatherall and others. The album Trailer Park (1996) arrived fully-formed a few years later and earned her not only the Mercury Prize, but several Brit nominations in the days when that actually meant something other than being a Brit School puppet. It had only a few hints remaining of her earlier electro roots despite Weatherall (fresh from “Screamedelica”) being again involved to a minor extent. Having gradually left the electronic material behind in favour of a folksy, acoustic direction with subsequent releases, Orton had toyed with calling it a day since her move to California some years ago. Thankfully, she’s back in the game and “Kidsticks” is a sparkling return to form and probably the best thing she’s done since 2002’s Daybreaker.
The album is a strangely intriguing mixture of domestic bliss, sensual carnality and disquieting moments; I was reminded at times of Kate Bush’s Aerial which has a similar feel of quiet, contemplative content meeting a nagging oddness.
Kidsticks also has a very thematic quality; the songs are all very much made for each other and it feels like a piece that is a whole rather than just a collection of songs. Orton apparently wrote the album on keyboards, eschewing her usual acoustic-based song structures. and it is, for the most part, bouncy and vivacious. Production was by Orton in conjunction with Andrew Hung from F*ck Buttons and he’s done a sterling job of picking out everything that’s good about Orton’s songs and letting her run with them when required. The other aspect that grabs you immediately is the voice. That voice. Unmistakably rich and velvety with that fragility woven large throughout. I reckon that fans who may have fallen away since Trailer Park will be immediately back on board with this one.
Opening song Snow seems almost gospel-esque as Orton’s voice mingles with her own backing vocals to give a multi-hued, widescreen and phantasmal effect. It has a dreamy quality that persists throughout most of the album.1973 is buoyant and playful with Orton’s exuberant voice chiming atop the bouncy electronic washes and keys.
Wave is all stuttering rhythms (bass and drums are provided by a variety of collaborators including Lucky Paul Taylor, Brian Inscore and Shahad Ismaily amongst others) and bubbling synths with flute-like fills dropping in and out as it progresses. Moon has a snappy bass (or it might be a de-tuned guitar) walking large across it and has the sound and feel of Jack White’s Seven Nation Army without the stadium-filling bombast.
Petals takes the listener on a slightly more vexing journey as Orton intones “My tears well up and cry for you” as the baroque backing is enjoined by a sizzling guitar solo towards the end. Dawnstar has a pulsing drum part below Orton’s cooing backing vocals. Her main vocal is a spectral, haunted presence over the song’s spine not unlike Falling which marries a squelchy bass to its synth intro.
Corduroy Legs is again reminiscent of Bush’s Aerial; tinkling piano falls over samples of birdsong and it’s over in done in under two and a half minutes.
The aforementioned Falling sees clipped, minimalist drums from Taylor underscore cello stabs as Orton sings in a disconcerting, breathless voice “My phone book is filling up with dead friends, I wonder who would answer if I called them” . Its again, one of a number of songs that have that disquieting edge that suggests distance and longing that informs much of Orton’s earlier work.
The album, as I’ve mentioned, is very much a stand-alone piece; all of the songs work with and within each other and it’s an intriguing journey from start to finish. It’s good to have her back.
All words by Joe Whyte. You can find more from Joe in his author archive.