Since the mid-1990s, Beth Orton has been mainly known for pioneering the hybrid sound known as “folktronica.” During the decade of the aughts, she began leaving the “tronica” part behind, and embracing the “folk” part—especially evident in 2006’s Comfort of Strangers.
With Sugaring Season, Orton’s first release in six years (available tomorrow in the U.S.), the transition is complete: this is most definitely not the Beth Orton that we started out with. And I have to say, while I respect the innovations of folktronica, I much prefer this Beth Orton over the other.
It’s not just the music that has changed; much of Orton’s life has changed in the six years since Comfort Of Strangers. She had two children, got married, quit smoking, and built up her guitar chops with weekly lessons under the iconic Bert Jansch, who passed away last fall. So while Orton was already on a path away from electronic elements, this album seems to be a natural outflow of what has been going on in her life. The result is an honest, intimate, simple-yet-refined sound that truly showcases Orton’s remarkable talent (as opposed to hiding it behind drum loops and synths).
To be sure, Sugaring Season is just about as far away from electronic as a person can get and still be actually recording the music. Most of the record was reportedly recorded live to 16-track tape machine in a three-day span, so a great deal of what you hear is what actually happened, without a lot of doctoring. High points for me include the opener “Magpie,” a passionate (fierce?) anthem descending into a jam, and possibly the loudest tune on the album; “Candles,” a slow groove that was actually a rehearsal the engineer recorded unbeknownst to the band; and the bluesy/soulful “Something More Beautiful,” with swirling strings surrounding Orton’s semi-broken vocals over a slow jam. And while the record finishes rather sleepily, the last three songs taken together (“Last Leaves Of Autumn,” “State Of Grace” and “Mystery”) happen to be my favorite part of the album.
After EMI dropped Beth Orton in 2006, many people (including Beth Orton herself) wondered if she’d be back. I, for one, am glad she found new inspiration and brought more to the table. Some have used the word “autumnal” to describe this record—and if they’re referring to the overall tone, I’d agree, it’s a great soundtrack for fall. But to be clear, I don’t think “autumnal” has anything to do with the state of Orton’s career. Sugaring Season completes a transition for her—a new chapter—but I think she’s just getting started. This is my favorite Beth Orton record so far, and I hope there are more like it to follow.