By Chaz Kangas
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Beth Orton, meet Dusty Springfield. At first glance, it seems the underground rave-troubadour and the raccoon-eyed Queen of Blue-Eyed Soul would keep a distance between themselves at any party. But the cosmic resonance of Dusty's death a mere six days before the release of Orton's career-defining Central Reservation reveals the two as sisters in ways both obvious and subtle: bursting arrangements, awkward beauty, raw vocals singularly phrased. Both women's artistic visions arose out of scenes where female voices were considered tools in the magic bags of master producers. Both flaunt eccentricity in the face of cultural mass production. And both are obsessed with the ever-elusive balance between losing oneself and locking into a dead-on reading of reality.
The story goes that in 1962, Dusty walked into a record shop on Broadway and heard the Exciters' "Tell Him" blasting. She knew instantly she had to join the MotownPhil Spector girl-group revolution. To disbelief and whispered denunciations, she left her brother's pop-folk group posthaste and released the tough-as-nails love letter "I Only Want To Be With You." Orton's narrative is the amped, London-of-the-'90s version: Convinced to sing in '89 by ambient electronica producer William Orbit who enjoyed her speaking voice as they made barstool chat in the U.K. ur-club Quiet Storm Orton was swept up to the rave scene's Mount Olympus, recording with the Chemical Brothers, Orbit, and the trip-hop outfit Red Snapper. As she prepared to record her '97 debut, Trailer Park, a friend turned Orton on to underground Chicago legend Terry Callier, who'd recently been introduced to London scenesters by intrepid cutout-binsearching DJs. Callier's '60s and '70s recordings cook soul, folk, jazz, love, politics, and religion; guided by his example, Orton mixed her emotive free-associations and creamy melodies down into laid-back turntable soundscapes. Trailer Park went gold in England, and Orton was crowned electro-folkie Comedown Queen.
Orton's certainly no blond-bouffanted eye-makeup abuser; she wears her 'do moderne, chopped at hard angles, with slim-to-none makeup. And she gave up singing other people's songs a while ago she claims sole writing credit on all but one of Central Reservation's tunes. But if her ear for fully loaded instrumentation and pointed words is any indication, Orton is immersed in Springfield's legacy, whether she hears it herself or not.
From a universe of elements, Orton has cobbled together on Central Reservation a sound both trippy and straightforward. She turns the table on electronica, demoting it from organizing principle to Wall of Sound backing role. Along with Trailer Parkstyle blips and bloops, keyboard washes and off-the-beaten-track samples, Orton throws in Ben Harper guitar ("Stolen Car"), Dr. John piano ("Sweetest Decline"), Callier vocals ("Pass in Time"), Afro-Cuban percussion, psychedelia, and oh-so-many strings. Yet Orton's unimpeachable melodies hold their own. She's the consummate bandleader, fearlessly taking each song to its summit, then down the other side to safety almost every track lasts at least five minutes. Dusty would be proud.
Orton concerns herself lyrically with the fallout from massive loss and gets more primal with it as time goes by. Biographically speaking, her obvious subjects are the deaths of her mother and father, which she addresses both directly and obliquely, extrapolating the abandonment and mourning to lovers, friends, and life itself. She's progressed through linear narrative to an almost mystical relationship with sounds and words. Much of her new album strings phrases loosely together in a way that evokes the fleeting sensations of living more than any particular sequence of events. Orton says she learned about singing and songwriting in the clubs, and what she gleaned is the value of subconscious transmission. So Central Reservation bypasses the cortex and goes straight for raw nerves; perhaps that's why Orton doesn't print out her lyrics, because you have to hear them to understand. But her bottom line remains clear: that grief thoroughly felt brings freedom.
Orton's sensibility is rooted both in her own tragedies and the English raves she conquered, which learned exuberant resilience from the gay dance world pre- and post-AIDS. And this is another thing Orton shares with Dusty, a queer heroine who continually looked anguish in the eye and told it to take a hike, though not before she let her heart get soaked with whatever pain was in the offing. In a funny way, the tacked-on Ben Watt remix of Central Reservation's title track is the album's most powerful track. Though it strips Orton of her carefully crafted embellishments, the remix boils her down to her emotional essence: the Comedown Queen wrapped in a soothing, post-peak cascade of shimmering synths. In her assurance-slash- declaration that "tomorrow is whatever I want it to be," she takes in past and present, squaring pain with pleasure 'til she's whole. I can see her and Dusty in post-disco bliss, stepping out the club door into a bright shining morning, Beth resplendent in a blond bouffant, Dusty finally free in a blunt cut and bare face.