Beth Orton

Comfort of Strangers

For her fourth solo album, British singer Beth Orton — whose early career was all about merging techno and trip hop with Nick Drake-inspired folk — teamed up with producer/musician Jim O'Rourke, best known for weirding up albums by Wilco, Stereolab, and the already loopy Sonic Youth. Surprisingly, the duo (occasionally joined by percussionist Tim Barnes) plays it exceptionally straight and organic, eschewing electronics and densely layered sonics almost entirely in favor of the traditional warmth of acoustic and barely electrified guitars, pianos, harmonica, and subdued drumming. Across 14 songs, though, that approach can get a tad prosaic, so it's up to Orton's larynx and lyrics to keep things interesting. For the most part, she's up to the task. Her husky voice comes off forced and Fiona AppleÐish on reproachful opener "Worms," but it doesn't take long for Orton to slip into her unique timbre and inflection and find a comfort zone, even if standout tracks like "Shadow of a Doubt" and the deceptively titled "Safe in Your Arms" — and almost every song here, really — are about the discomfort of broken relationships. Comfort of Strangersmay have a simple aesthetic, but Orton's sentiments on the subject of love are anything but.

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