-- Martin Johnson

Beth Orton
Trailer Park

For my money, the finest moment of the Chemical Brothers' much-hyped Dig Your Own Hole is the conventional pop transition three minutes and 13 seconds into "Where Do I Begin." It's a piece lifted straight out of the stadium rock textbook. It goes like this: Beth Orton -- a guest vocalist who also sang on the Chemicals' Exit Planet Dust and on a few of ambient guru William Orbit's projects -- murmurs, "Where do I start, where do I begin," with this beautiful, disaffected-sounding lilt. Her vocals then double back over a verse about waking up in a hangover fug, and some accompanying electric wah-wah loops get faster and faster and faster until they're a pulse that goes off for three seconds. Then, these huge bass drums crash in, and the whole sound is so thick and big that -- for just a second -- it's the greatest thing you've ever heard.

Sure, the songwriting, the engineering, makes it great, but it wouldn't be without Orton. She's the human connection, a tentacle of personality wrapping itself around a listener drowning in technology. See, Orton's got one of Those Voices. Not only is hers instantly recognizable, its quality is so familiar that you're sure you've heard it before.

On Orton's Trailer Park debut, there's not one moment as immaculate as that transition on Dig. Instead, the record echoes the larger sonic theme of that song -- namely, a union of human emotion and technology. That's by design. Primal Scream knob twiddler and one-time pre-eminent London DJ Andrew Weatherall produced three of the 10 songs, and Victor Van Vugt, who produced all of the Tindersticks' records, takes the other seven. Together, they marry electronic music and folk.

Weatherall's handiwork tugs Orton's voice along into spaces replete with blirrrrrs, echoing phasers, and whirring electronic drums. The Van Vugt tunes are all based around an acoustic guitar, and the accompanying musicians (three fellas from Primal Scream on acoustic guitar, double bass, and drums, plus strangers on long arrangements of violin, organ, and cello) get pushed up in the mix.

While the acoustic songs are prettier and more accessible, the electronic songs ("Tangent," "Touch Me With Your Love," and a cover of Ronnie Spector's "I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine") are more compelling. When the current boom around electronic music fades from publicists' hype to commercial failure, the bleed that the dying genre makes into rock, folk, and hip hop will become the real legacy. Orton's already infusing songs with those sounds.

But Trailer Park is hardly vanguard stuff. It consists of affirmative love songs ("Someone's Daughter"), simplistic takes on karma ("Don't Need a Reason"), and friendship odes ("Whenever"). With both her subject matter and her sound, Orton fits right into both MTV and VH1 and their radio equivalents. But that's hardly a bad thing. If Orton can bring a face to the faceless Chemical Brothers, she could probably bring some soul to the soulless mass mediums.


Souls for Sale

Here's some advice for a record exec working at an entertainment conglomerate (and worrying a bit, in the face of all this Britronica, about the state of American Rawk, and how that trickles down to the lease he took on his taupe Lexus coupe): Eschew Radish (and spit 'em out) and put your kajillion-dollar bid on Verbena. "This band has it!" you should be shouting as you storm around the boardroom in your suit and Nikes. "It, damn it, it." And what you mean by "it" is: that irksome bemused scoff directed at fatheads like yourself; that what-kind-of-drugs-you-got? attitude; that look -- anemic arty trash-boy scrappers, a babe in a fur coat on guitar; and the Birmingham, Ala., authenticity points (though I guess that's a "those"). Not to mention the endless supply of pop hooks, the monster guitars, the boy/girl harmonies. If they won't sign, I'd suggest offering them the use of your boss' mansion up in the canyon, a shoebox full of unspecified white powder, and some prostitutes, if needed. If they still won't sign, get out there and buy out li'l ol' Merge Records in Chapel Hill, N.C. Whip those ponies into some sort of fiscal shape. They currently house profit-disincentives (i.e., cool groups) like Portastatic, Superchunk, and Neutral Milk Hotel.

At the heaviest extreme of Souls for Sale -- and I do mean a thick Superfuzz Bigmuff-era Mudhoney heaviness -- there's "The Desert": an all-engulfing Stooges-style drone that transforms at the chorus. Chords miraculously appear and begin to change in the distorto-wash as the vocals double up, lovely, in the aforementioned boy/girl harmony. The hell if you don't start to hum until things downshift into some sort of grizzled, old-style ZZ Top bridge. (Aah. Memories of warm beer and cigarette ash.) In "Hey, Come On," the same sonic formula holds, except that it is a little less massive and even more catchy and melodic -- both the verses and the chorus working those harmonies. "Shaped Like a Gun," with its jerky (and kinda hokey) Deep Purple guitar intro, soon gets coated with a drizzling of pop syrup. And "The Song That Ended Your Career" never bothers with the distortion pedal at all, but instead backs up the hooks and harmonies with clean chord changes and an organ, and is, well, outright beautiful in an Exile on Main Street kind of way. (I mean the Rolling Stones, not Pussy Galore.) "Maybe we could sing together," Scott Bondy and Anne Marie Griffin croon/swoon. "Just one song until it's better." Shucks.

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