Audio files

Published February 19, 2006


Beth Orton's stunning fourth album, Comfort of Strangers, comes after nearly four years of necessary self-reflection and inspiring travel. Orton, always one of Britain's most evocative singers, with simply poignant talent, released a shaky, hesitant album in 2002 called Daybreaker. It overused the electronic textures and swirling folk sounds that defined and, ultimately, muddled Orton's sound.

On Comfort of Strangers, easily Orton's most emotionally piercing album - and she has always excelled at writing songs that get right into your bloodstream - she pares down her tunes to haunting skeletons. Then she often builds them back up with supple, delicate ripples of piano, her driving guitar work and, occasionally, flecks of violin. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Orton's striking croon stands at the center of her 14 compositions. It has always been her strength - soulful and vulnerable - and here serves her personal, unflinching songs, adding grace to her self-assured tunes. Credit also producer/innovator Jim O'Rourke (Wilco, Sonic Youth), who also contributes bass and piano work to the album.

Opening with the slight piano-jazz rumble of Worms, Orton's album quickly unveils its folk leanings with Countenance and its sashaying piano and zesty percussion. The gospel-tinged Rectify opens hesitantly and then comes unglued in its chorus, converting itself into an all-out shimmy. "Love is a one way train/comes on gentle as a hurricane/ it's got p.a.i.n. written all the way through/from where I'm sat looking over at you," she sings.

The lovely title track, swathed in organ and glittery, haunting percussion, is a delicate confection, but it's rich in emotion, thanks to Orton's smooth singing and witty wordplay. "I know the sun that shines on me/on better terms than you or I may ever be," she sings, investing her song with a confidence that signifies that Orton is back, and stronger than ever. A

- BRIAN ORLOFF, Times correspondent


Scottish minstrels Belle & Sebastian excel at crafting wimpy, er, lithe chamber pop stacked with lovely cello arrangements, airy guitars and breezy melodies. On The Life Pursuit, the band's seventh album, Belle and Sebastian's tunes nod toward shimmery new wave-inspired sounds, thanks to synthesizers and sunny vocal harmonies. White Collar Boy rides along on a darting synthesized riff, and Act of the Apostle Part 1 opens up singer Stuart Murdoch's delicate croon, its chorus unveiling a chiming little melody. Then there's the loungelike funk of Song for Sunshine, with its licentious-sounding groove and Murdoch and company's sultry singing. It's a bit campy really, but sure sounds fun!

See, Murdoch and company have a sense of humor, but waggish lyrics and the occasional cheese-factor (see above, Song for Sunshine) hardly detract from the album's overall vibe. In fact, The Life Pursuit, ever-buoyant, doesn't get weighed down by its occasional '80s influence.

Really, most songs hinge on the fusion of guitar and keyboards. Take the sheer pop exuberance of songs like The Blues Are Still Blue, with its lush group harmony and its undeniable hook. "I left my homework in the launderette/got a letter from my mama which my stupid dog has ate," Murdoch sings with a wink. B+

- B.O.


One of what seems like a zillion members of the truly wondrous, rocking Canadian supergroup, Broken Social Scene, Jason Collett issued his second solo album, Idols of Exile, last month.

The album features inviting folk-rock melodies drenched in drizzles of piano, acoustic guitar and Collett's hazy, casual croon. An immediate highlight, Hangover Days, the second song, finds Metric (another stellar eastern Canada band) lead singer Emily Haines dueting with Collett, lending the song a wry swagger and winning conversational vibe. "We try so hard to love," they sing, their voices meshing finally after butting against each other earlier in the verse. The haunting Parry Sound brims with longing and a mournful electric guitar riff.

Subtly and thoughtfully orchestrated - songs teem with horns, even pedal steel and crisp harmonies - Collett's 12 tunes never feel overstuffed, a testament to his musicianship and songwriting. A-

- B.O.