If there’s something to be learned from Beth Orton’s new album, Comfort of Strangers, it’s that haste sometimes makes great art.
Orton recorded the 14-track disc in just seven days with Jim O’Rourke, who’s produced Wilco and, until recently, played with Sonic Youth. The two hadn’t planned to finish the album so soon, but O’Rourke’s eagerness to work with Orton—who’d asked him to play guitar on one of the cuts—inadvertently set up this blistering pace.
“I met him and played him about five songs, and he said if I gave him five days, he could show me he was the person who should produce my record,” Orton says. Later, she and O’Rourke met up for a two-hour rehearsal—this time with Tim Barnes, another genre-jumping musician (who’s worked with Silver Jews, Ikue Mori and The Essex Green), on drums. It was clear to Orton what she should do. “[O’Rourke] definitely was the best person I could have found to work with,” she says. “There is some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard being played to my songs.”
Strangers is Orton’s fourth studio album, and with its stricken lyrics and her vocals fissured and sandpapery as ever, it should be readily embraced by fans of 1999’s Central Reservation. But Strangers also contains some raffish new twists: the stop/start intro of “Conceived,” the handclaps punctuating the title track (co-written by O’Rourke and indie troubadour M. Ward) and the sarcasm of “Worms” (“They got a wishbone where their backbone shoulda grown”), a Tin Pan Alley-style tune that wouldn’t be out of place on a Fiona Apple disc.
Orton plans to take Strangers on the road, first touring the U.K. and Ireland in February and March and then traversing the States in April. Usually, playing the same songs city after city breeds creative fatigue, but this time out might be an exception. “Every time I listen, I hear something else,” says Orton, “and it makes the songs alive to me in lots of different ways.”