Singer-songwriter trapped between rock and a hard place

On Beth Orton’s new CD, ‘Comfort of Strangers,’ she’s still searching for love ‘ and an audience

by Keri Carlson

Throughout Beth Orton’s solo career, she has seemed to be stuck in a paradox.

Her work with acid-tinged electronica artists Red Snapper and the Chemical Brothers has given her underground cred, and she has kept some of that icy electronic coolness in solo work.

But there always has been a side to Orton that gets lost in a slew of coffee shop, post-Lilith Fair singer-songwriters.

Much of her work has easy-rolling melodies with tender vocals similar to someone like Norah Jones. Still, Orton cannot fully capitalize on the adult-contemporary market because she delves into too many experiments, and while never on the verge of avant-garde, it’s just enough to alienate the Jones fans.

On her latest album, “Comfort of Strangers,” Orton completely sheds her ties with electronics, but compensates the loss of her drum machine with a full band that adds subtle warmth throughout the record. The added dose of brightness comes from the help of producer Jim O’Rourke, who produced “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” “Comfort of Strangers,” oftentimes has a twangy beauty similar to that of Wilco.

Although the icy cool of Orton has melted in the music, this album finds Orton revealing a bitter side to her previously sweet lyrics.

The title track finds Orton singing, “I’d rather have no love / than messing with the wrong stuff / it’s just the comfort of strangers.” Orton’s pessimism toward love is a consistent theme on the album. Many of the lyrics seem to reflect a similar sentiment – that love is only pain, and Orton is seeking to detach herself from the hassle love creates.

The pop sensibilities of “Comfort of Strangers” moves Orton closer to a kind of Norah Jones-meets-Wilco sound. But the album nonetheless is awash in repetition and pessimism, which once again tangles Orton in her contradictions.