Beth Orton spent the first part of her career alternating between haunting electronic music and intimate folktronica, but started phasing out digital embellishments as she gained more confidence in her musical abilities. This move toward the organic felt effortless, and it led to some searing acoustic moments (“This One’s Gonna Bruise,” from 2002’s Daybreaker) and unexpected collaborations (2006’s Comfort Of Strangers, which was produced by Jim O’Rourke).
On the new Sugaring Season, her first record in six years, the U.K. singer-songwriter stretches herself even further: Under the watchful eye of producer Tucker Martine, Orton recorded the album live in the studio with a full band. The result is an ornate folk-rock record augmented with cinematic strings and pensive piano.
Orton’s voice, a smoky instrument full of beautiful desperation and wounded melancholy, is lovely; at various times, she channels Cat Power’s Chan Marshall (the minor-key chamber-folk distress signal “Candles”), a blues belter (“Last Leaves Of Autumn”), and Joni Mitchell (the free-floating closer “Mystery”). And Sugaring Season’s best songs exhibit gentle nuance, from the piano-based waltz “See Through Blue” (a fanciful tune that Orton wrote for her daughter) to the retro R&B torch song “Something More Beautiful” and the opening track “Magpie,” a lovely collision of stormy strings and cascading acoustic guitar.
But Sugaring Season is also frustratingly uneven. Songs such as “Poison Tree” and “State Of Grace” lack energy due to shapeless arrangements, and the album is missing a sturdy rhythmic backbone; in fact, several songs have no percussive presence at all. Without a steady beat to ground it, Orton’s music tends to float into the ether. And unfortunately in the case of Sugaring Season, this means many of the album’s best, moving moments fade into the background.