So, Beth Orton and Jim O’Rourke walk into a bar and Jim says, “Can I produce your new album?”. Beth pauses a moment, and looks at him confused: “I really don’t know where this joke is going” she replies.
Nowhere as it happens. This month of collaborations who’s sole purpose seems to be to delight players of six degrees of musical separation (“Bet you a tenner I can link Queens Of The Stone Age to Belle And Sebastian in two steps…”), can delight in the fact that now Norfolk’s favourite comedown-folk queen can be connected to Sonic Youth by just one degree.
In that light it’s a strange pairing, but when you examine some of the bands O’Rourke has produced, it’s a lot less weird. Besides, and far more importantly, it’s not as if Comfort Of Strangers marks some screeching incoherent U-turn to Orton’s style; what it does mark is an album dropping much of the gloss that was applied to Daybreaker, any of the electronic elements that were trodden through Trailer Park and Central Reservation, and stripping everything back to a central folk core. In fact, with the minimal musical palette that’s used to support Orton’s songs, you might say it’s a question of production Jim, but not as we know it.
A homelier record then. This isn’t an Orton you can imagine appearing on a Chemical Brothers track, she’d seem much more at ease on her porch, chewing some straw and patting her gingham, remarking: “Whashat then my luuver?! Tek-er-nologey? We don’t have none of that funny stuff round ‘ere…”
Just simple, homespun truths. While Worms and Countenance drift a little close to country, the illegitimate, in-bred second cousin of folk, when Comfort Of Strangers plays up the obvious melancholy of a woman alone with her voice, it’s pretty magical. The languid Feral Children, the harmonica-enriched Absinthe and the bleak Pieces Of Sky don’t do much, but wholly succeed in crushing your heart.
With enough female singer-songwriters around to sink Radio 2, you’ve got to do something to become distinguishable from the masses, and Orton’s unique selling point has always been that voice. Rich, textured and like Joni Mitchell smoking Woodbines in a West Country cider stall, it makes sense to stick it at the forefront of all that’s going on, and it isn’t surprising that here it’s at the forefront of all that’s good. Which is a lot.
Back to basics and back on form. Whatever the reasons behind choosing O’Rourke as a producer, the truth is he seems to understand what to do with an artist like Orton: write some songs, record that voice, make some pleasant doodles in the background to stop it getting lonely, and then bugger off down the pub. Nothing more complex than that.