Back in Business
Beth Orton gets back to the basics, Neko Case heaps on another helping of heart, and Built to Spill delivers a long-waited stunner
Avant-garde musician and producer Jim O’Rourke (Sonic Youth, Wilco) definitely puts his stamp on Comfort Of Strangers . The dance beats have been replaced by a simpler, quieter production that features piano more prominently than Orton’s past releases. This is apparent from the outset, as the pounding opening track, “Worms,” sounds like a lost Fiona Apple track. The standout title cut, featuring beautiful lilting vocals over a nice background of marimbas and piano, is Orton at her finest. Her lyrics are typically strong and thoughtful throughout Comfort Of Strangers . Overall, the album purveys an underlying sense of freshness and hope that is apparent even on the quietest tracks, thanks to Orton’s unique ability to convey her passion and soul to a recording.
While Comfort Of Strangers may seem simple and spare at first, repeated listens reveal that O’Rourke’s tasteful and inventive production offers the perfect vehicle for Orton’s innate abilities as a singer and lyricist. After the musical downer that was Daybreaker, it seems that a reinvigorated Beth Orton has discovered that all she really needs to make a great album is her heart, soul and voice.
Case’s most powerful asset is undoubtedly her voice, and on Fox Confessor , she breaks from her usual woozy moodiness, and taps into a more antiquated, country sound. With “Hold On, Hold On” and “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood,” Case shifts to a dark gothic feel, in the latter song crooning coolly about a bewildering mythological dreamscape. On “Teenage Love,” as the title suggests, Case hits a melodramatic longing mode that reminds you of long-lost lunchroom stares. Then, further glutting the thematic concoction of the album, Case goes straight-up gospel with “John Saw That Number,” belting like the star soloist in a tiny country church somewhere in West Virginia where they still baptize people in a muddy river.
But the shifting mood isn’t distracting; it’s surprising and captivating. While some have accused Case’s lyrics of being overly esoteric—and this album’s are no different—there’s a natural, subconscious progression to their cryptic randomness. And even if you can’t decipher what she means at times, the visceral, brooding delivery is enough to put this album in the cherished stack.
Built to Spill
“Going Against Your Mind,” the opening track to You in Reverse , reveals the next step in Built to Spill’s career of refining and executing intelligent guitar rock. The record comes out of the gates hurtling forward with a driving beat and thick guitars soaring atop the churning rhythms.
The album continues on the wings of Marsch’s solid songwriting and endless ability to compose catchy guitar hooks. In the context of the band’s long career, the record falls between Keep it Like a Secret and Ancient Melodies , forgoing the warm sound of Ancient Melodies for a more direct attack. Though the band’s arrangements are seemingly a well-crafted backdrop for the melodies, both vocal and guitar, they offer deep layers to be explored and enjoyed. Like the records before them, You in Reverse not only stands up to, but gets better with, continued listens. The songs go back and forth from warm and personal to hard-hitting rock ’n’ roll littered with emotion and slaying guitars. For all the time spent anticipating this record, it delivers exactly what was desired. Release.