As charismatic in her own understated way as the flashiest rocker, Beth Orton makes albums rarely enough that it’s tempting to view each one as an event, not just another in a series. But Kidsticks feels genuinely special—it’s an exciting reboot and a tantalizing hint that new strategies may be on the horizon, never a bad thing when an artist has been on the job more than two decades.
Orton entered the spotlight in the mid-1990s as a standard-bearer of “folktronica” (a term she dislikes, probably for its gimmicky connotations), blending folk and techno on collaborations with the Chemical Brothers and what she considers her first proper solo effort, the captivating Trailer Park. However, she’d already spliced genres in her obscure 1993 album SuperPinkyMandy, produced by William Orbit, known for his Madonna sessions.
Fast-forward to now. Orton has relocated from Britain to LA, become a parent, and after detouring into actual folk music, revisited technology for Kidsticks. Co-producing and co-writing the songs on synths with Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons, Orton sounds like she’s been set free. There’s a bracing, insistent physicality here that’s often lacking in her acoustic guitar-driven work, which can verge on wan. The songs are generally simple and direct, as indicated by such blunt titles as “Wave,” “Moon” and “Petals,” and Orton doesn’t try to hide the fact she’s no longer a kid, exploiting the occasional cracks and scrapes in her still-lovely voice to arresting effect.
She flirts with funk on “1973” and exclaims, “I’m getting high,” in the exuberant “Snow,” chanting as if seeking an epiphany through ecstatic repetition. Throughout, Orton toys with different ways of expression, nearly scat-singing at one point and lapsing into a spoken-word fever dream amidst techno bleeps and blips elsewhere. Pondering standard themes of longing, devotion and loss, she invariably finds a pungent lyrical twist without resorting to literary pretension, noting, “My phone book/Is filling up with dead friends,” in “Falling,” and giving thanks “For the beautiful spark/Whatever this is” on the nicely ambivalent love song “Flesh and Blood.”
So seamless it handily overshadows her previous mashups, Kidsticks could—and should—inspire Beth Orton to take greater stylistic liberties in the future. Don’t call it folktronica. Call it pop, with all the inclusiveness the word implies, and stay tuned.