Beth Orton’s work with top electronic artists and producers wasn’t an add-on to her folkie songs. It was part and parcel of her artistic DNA, and her last album, Kidsticks, shows that maybe it still is. Here’s a playlist of Orton’s most electronically-influenced songs and remixes with commentary.
by Marshall Bowden
Beth Orton’s twenty-plus years in the music biz has been a remarkable journey of a performer who follows her singular muse. In the early ’90s, Orton became part of the British electronic music scene when she met and paired up with William Orbit. The two ended up recording a cover of the John Martyn song “Don’t Wanna Know About Evil” and releasing it in Japan in 1992. She also contributed vocals to Orbit’s four-album project Strange Cargo. The track “Water From a Vine Leaf,” which she co-wrote, is perhaps the best-known example of their work together during this period.
“He wanted me to be all like part of his world and we started going out together and he wanted me to sing. I was like ‘Fuck off, I’m not going to be some bloke’s bird who sings but can’t even sing, but because they’re going out together he gets her to sing on his record’. I was really indignant about it. I remember I was really drunk and on ecstasy – I used to make him do loads of ecstasy, he never went out or did anything – and then all of a sudden I was popping pills in his gob and we were lying under a mixing desk being all mental. And I sang ‘Cry Me A River’ as a joke, and ‘Catch A Falling Star’ by Francoise Hardy. And then he made a little demo of it.”Beth Orton Tells the Untold Story of the Birth of Trailer Park, Luke Turner, March 18, 2009, The Quietus
In 1995 Orton began to work with the Chemical Brothers, guesting on “Alive Alone,” the final track of their first album as the Chemical Brothers, Exit Planet Dust. Slow, contemplative, droney, the track has a perfect hippie-psychedelic-folkie vibe similar to that which Orton was cultivating. It brought the album to a conclusion that was song-oriented and it pushed the electronic dance music boundaries in the way that Ed Simon suggested the duo was looking to do with the release of Exit Planet Dust:
“I’m amazed at the low expectations which have always been centred on dance music. I’m amazed at the lack of ambition. What dance music needs at the moment is a big album. An album the scene truly deserves. An album which so many artists out there who have promised so much haven’t quite managed to deliver.”https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jun/17/chemical-brothers-classic-interview-1995-muzik-rocks-backpages
In mid-1996 Orton released her first solo album, Trailer Park. The album garnered a lot of attention in the UK and got Orton noticed by astute listeners in the U.S. With its uncanny mix of acoustic British folk music, gentle hippie pop, and techno beats and production techniques, it was a record out of time.
Take for example, the first track, “She Cries Your Name,” cowritten by Orton and Orbit. As recorded for Trailer Park it is essentially a folk-rock anthem played by an acoustic guitar and acoustic bass along with real drums that play a bit of a stuttery electric beat. But then there’s that earworm keyboard figure that sounds a bit like a recorder that makes it sound a bit like psychedelic druid rock. It’s a ‘future primitive’ sound that’s truly witchy.
That same song has a very different sound on William Orbit’s fourth Strange Cargo album, Hinterland. It’s centered around a guitar loop hook (later taken up by piano) and a slow groove–still featuring that keyboard riff. But the folk element is gone, and Orton’s vocals are layered and treated more like a featured vocal on an electronic track, as she merely repeats the chorus at various intervals. It’s like a remix more than anything, but it demonstrates the very open and organic way that Orton seemed to approach her songs at the time.
Trailer Park contrasted songs like “She Cries Your Name” and folky pop numbers like “Somebody’s Daughter” and “We Live as We Dream” with deep electronic cuts like “Tangent” and “Galaxy of Emptiness.” That proved a winning combination as the album spawned new genre terminology like ‘folktronica’ and ‘folk hop’ as critics and fans stepped all over themselves trying to describe what made Orton such a breath of fresh air.
In 1997 Orton again contributed her vocals to a Chemical Brothers track to close out their album Dig Your Own Hole. “Where Do I Begin” begins based on an acoustic guitar hook. Orton repeats a brief verse several times as the track begins to build. Eventually, it bursts into a full-fledged electronic dance piece. It’s the most dance-oriented piece that she collaborated on with the Chemicals, the least like a traditional song.
In 1999 Beth released her second album, Central Reservation. This one was overall more acoustic and less electronically-influenced than Trailer Park, but it did feature the work of Ben Watts, half of the British duo Everything But the Girl. Watts produced the most electronic music-oriented track on the album, “Stars All Seem to Weep” and remixed the title track for inclusion at the end of the album (The Then Again version). The EP single release of the song also contains remixes by William Orbit and Deep Dish.
Around the time of recording this album, Orton laid down a basic track on a version of the Tim Buckley song “I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain” with the Chemical Brothers. She came across a copy of the recording and it was released in 2018. But at the time it went unreleased and unfinished.
In 2002 Orton was back in the studio with the Chemical Brothers to perform a track for their album Come With Us. “The State We’re In” was again reserved for the album’s final track–Orton’s ‘spot’–and it’s a gorgeous piece of slow psychedelic unraveling that uses Orton’s voice, now recognizable to a much wider audience, in the same way as her own compositions. “The State We’re In” could be a lost track from one of Orton’s own albums. It was ‘lost’ from the Lost In Translation soundtrack, appearing in the film but not on the original soundtrack recording.
That same year Orton released her third album, Daybreaker, which applied much the same formula as her previous work. It also featured contributions from most of her old collaborators–Orbit, the Chemical Brothers, Ben Watt–as well as new collaborators Ryan Adams and Johnny Marr. The title track was the main ‘folktronica’ entry on the album, with much of the rest of the record moving into a more organic territory, but that was mitigated by the release in 2003 of The Other Side of Daybreak.
The Other Side contained a collection of B-sides from Daybreaker’s singles releases as well as a number of unused remixes, including the International Peoples Gang dub remix of “Thinking About Tomorrow.” “Beautiful World” is a straight-up trip-hop track.
After that, Orton moved in the direction of straightforward singer-songwriter, leaving behind the electronic integration and manipulation of her voice and songs. 2006’s Company of Strangers and 2012’s Sugaring Season were really based on Orton’s songs, her voice, and relatively conservative musical settings.
In 2016 Orton released Kidsticks, a return of sorts to her heady days with William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers. Working with electronic musician Andrew Hung, Orton revisits the melodic electronic settings that helped make her sound unique, but it’s more than just a revisitation.
Kidsticks is Beth Orton’s most electronically-fueled solo project, and for those who enjoy her music, it’s a welcome step forward.