Back to the Future


No matter how scruffy Beth Orton gets in her wayback machine (mewling malevolent-era John Martyn or getting dusty with Terry Callier and Pigpennish Ryan Adams), she will never exit Planet Dust. Electronica’s It-girl when it almost mattered stateside, she was also chanteuse and prima luma for producer William Orbit (before he manned the strobe on Madge’s Ray of Light). She did it for plenty of lesser lights too, being breathless for Red Snapper and Andrew Weatherall, but it’s her huffy contributions to the Chemical Brothers that dug her own hole. Her throat croaked and conveyed bored weariness amid the big beats, soundtracking the fragile physical condition of coming down from Ecstasy highs or ski slopes the morning after.

As Orton’s subsequently shucked off each successive electronica layer to show her folk roots, she’s also revealed a Sarah Plain and Tall. Not that she’s lanky enough to be on the Laurel Canyon ladies’ basketball team with redwoods like Joni Mitchell or Judee Sill, but Comfort of Strangers has her vying for a seat on that bench. It helps to have Jim O’Rourke as producer and bass player, seeing as how he reincarnated Sill’s demos last year, imagining how the soft-pop ’70s would sound in today’s dollar bin. With Tim Barnes pocking drums and Orton playing piano, the trio knows how to stay deep in the denim-patched pocket. Now if only so many songs didn’t vascillate between Aimee Mann and a girlie sentiment that demands you “put a little love in your heart.”

On a distant desert shore, Berliner Antye Greie-Fuchs, a/k/a AGF, is trying to move toward the dystopian future of femme-hummed electronica, but she’s a realist, not a meliorist, meaning messy glitches and further fissuring of already broken beats, suffused with a million little pieces of boring binary minutiae. “Spent the whole weekend watching a movie in a loop . . . get lost in the smallest details,” she huffs, her morning breath both come-on and Steve Reich “Come Out.” Unlike Björk pagan exoticism, AGF wants to be as quotidian and mundane as humanly possible. Her sighs and whispers detail morning commutes, e-mails, cubical existentialism. She revels in shitty poem blogs as well as Bridget Jones’s diary, reading recipes for marzipan and recording every idiotic thought, like how the Dalai Lama should be president of the world. Or else her next-door neighbor.