Having reached a career-high with the commercially successful Daybreaker in 2002, the past decade has been a quiet one for Beth Orton. Her parting of the ways with Heavenly Records led to the delayed release of her fifth studio album, 2006’s Comfort of Strangers, which found her moving away from her electronica roots in favour of a more traditional alt-folk sound. She has taken an even bigger sabbatical before the release of her latest album (mainly due to the birth of her two children), and there is a great deal of curiosity about how Orton fits into a music industry that has evolved rapidly since her debut album (the Japanese-only disc SuperpinkyMandy) back in 1993.
As it turns out, Sugaring Season finds Orton taking a further step away from ‘folktronica’ as she plants her feet firmly in the folk genre. In many ways, her latest offering is more contemplative in tone than we have to come expect from Orton, though it is perhaps not a total surprise given she is now in her early 40s. However, though the approach she has gone for with her recent records may not garner the same kind of appeal or notice that her earlier work with the likes of William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers did, there is enough depth within the lyrics to keep hardened Orton-devotees satisfied, as well as bringing some new fans on board.
Part of the reason for this is the fresh sound that Orton brings to the table for Sugaring Season, no doubt helped by the participation of her newest supporting band, consisting of keyboardist Rob Burger, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Brian Blade, folk singer Sam Amidon, and guitarists Marc Ribot & Ted Barnes (who is the only one of the current line-up to have played with Orton in the past).
As with all albums, whether they be eagerly-awaited or not, their success depends greatly on how good or bad its opening track is, and in this regard Orton pulls out all the stops with the soulful and heartfelt Magpie. Given how long she has been away from the spotlight, the BRIT award-winner needed to established her footing early on, but just three minutes & 27 seconds into Sugaring Season, you realise you are on safe ground.
There is a beautiful subtlety to the songs here, encapsulated through powerful numbers like ‘Dawn Chorus’, ‘Call Me The Breeze’ and ‘Poison Tree’. Yet, despite being the star of the show, Orton owes much to her accompanying musician, in much the same manner as a sports coach is complemented by his faithful backroom staff, or the lead star in a Hollywood epic is helped along by a strong supporting cast. Overall, though the chances of Sugaring Season achieving the same kind of record selling attention as Daybreaker would appear to be unlikely, it is still comforting to find that Orton is making exactly the kind of albums that she wants to make, and isn’t making any concession to a mainstream listenership.