A Bit of a Dag


Beth Orton will make a good mother. In her own stomping ground, England, she’s known as the Comedown Queen. She wears floppy hats in the sun and has freckles on her nose. From the first day, her music has said just about enough. She’s the lightly perfumed cuddle at the end of any fall, with a concerned look and a hint of a smile ‘cos she’s been through it all too.

In the vocabulary of her home empire, Beth Orton is a bit of a dag—something every mother need be. She can be sappy. She lets us know how sad it all is. Her melodies are as primary and sweet as a folk artist who’s a pop artist who’s a dance artist can get. A dag is a bit silly and a bit unstylish. All of these combine to make a genuine dag charming as hell.

The album before this latest one was the best breakup album of 1999—at Central Reservation‘s essence is a heartbroken girl as “deep as a whale” whose “heart sinks with the sun.” It’s girly stuff. It comes from this lanky melancholic creature who barely opens her mouth to sing such lyrics. And all the way through the lamentations is a steady line of motherly advice—dryly expressed and from the softest part of the singer. While her spurner couldn’t cause her any harm, she won’t try to put him aside: “This isn’t a test, I won’t lose my experience, and it’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna be alright.”

Like a truly dependable maternal influence, there’s a sturdy force of the same character behind all three of her albums. Mother has nurtured the same production and mixing team throughout, and the dusty vocals of her good self keep the kids loyal. Like Trailer Park, her first full-length, the new Daybreaker is less about melody and being lovely than about instrumentation and experimentation with the elements—electronic, acoustic, and lyrical. And, in accordance with the breakup handbook, Daybreaker is more about the comedown than about the storytelling that Orton introduced herself with on Trailer Park.

While the rest of the world is thudding and swirling its way through different versions of the same night, Orton lounges with a guitar in long-sleeved T-shirts lolling the little ones after their search. Her voice hasn’t changed since she first sang lines for William Orbit, and then for the Chemical Brothers. She infused her signature touch of toasty human frailty to otherwise emotionally uncommitted music of the electronic age.

Daybreaker has a track from each finger of Orton’s person. The radio single, “Concrete Sky,” is upbeat and predictable and not the best song on the album. Ryan Adams sings with her on this one, and though the chorus lyrics save it from triteness, there’s still a rare forced air about it—plain and impersonal for the masses. The trip-hop title track breaks and opens with drums from Ben Watt of Everything but the Girl; its background sounds like gulls and traveling vehicles. A firm, sad cello holds our hand throughout, reminding us to keep our sneakers on.

Orton’s fancy side can be tugged and plucked and synthesized, but what she does best is the soft, the blue, the raw. She parties in a pair of old jeans and multi-colored Converse. “God Song” comes before “This One’s Gonna Bruise” on Daybreaker, and both come close to the end. These are the tunes that make the album hit home—where Mummy Beth should hit. Emmylou Harris links vocals with her on “God Song,” along with Ryan Adams, to carry our cotton-cuffed woman to the flame-warmed fields that all country and folk singers come from and go back to. Then Mum brings us back to the fireplace in the living room and the burning brandy after a hard night of life—”This One’s Gonna Bruise” is all acoustic guitar and thick crying strings behind half-spoken Adams lyrics that Orton lets bleed. “Do you even know what goes on in a heart anymore?” she opens the door with. “What a thing to lose, you’ll learn one day won’t you?” It’s tortured, and it’s wide and naked, and it’s what’s to love about this pommy talent. “Left out in the rain, miss you. But I feel bad for you. I feel bad for you.”