What does Beth Orton sound like?
Unrushed folktronica that is just as happy in the acoustic world as it is in the electronic world.
The review of Beth Orton – Weather Alive
Notoriously difficult to pigeonhole is often a strength I admire in an artist and Beth Orton personifies that. Each album she’s previously made has straddled somewhere between electronica pop anthems to symphonic singer-songwriter to kitchen sink folk. Sometimes it’s raw acoustic instrumentation, sometimes it’s pulling elements from the club scene into something you’d hear from a blues musician. ‘Weather Alive’ has taken years to gestate and Beth Orton has said her seven years away as a parent has often been lonely. As a result, this album is mood first, melody second. It is the definition of a slow burn.
It’s Beth’s most cohesive sounding album to date though. It sounds like she’s watching the world pass by outside and being inspired by it. The drums are intricate but never overpowering. They pitter-patter and skip around rather than smash a beat. The everpresent pianos and organs give a homely ethereal tone that is often the base hue for creating a mood. Add in some thick basslines and a heavy emphasis on smaller motifs all working together towards something grander and you have a mood that’s set out before you rather than an anthem. It is a densely thick mood and one that is a mixture of darker curiosity and genuine wonder for the world around you. Electronic elements play a role too but in a more subtle way. It’s around how production adds a thickness to an instrument or how hues of sound effects ring out dramatically. It is one of the most sonically complicated albums Beth has created and it is her first self-produced album too. The fact it sounds familiar but distinctive is a credit to her production skills.
Across the eight tracks, we have a moody mixture. ‘Lonely’ is a gravelly and tired nighttime jazz-pop number. The tiddling piano and distant saxophone are led by a punchy bass and Beth’s raw vocals are left warts and all. ‘Arms Around a Memory’ is a mysterious shuffle of deep marimba and chopped-up gospelesque backing vocals that grow more and more desperate over time. The simple piano and guitar riffs that hold the initial melody are perfect to allow the song to spiral into its own depths – something Beth Orton strives to do on most of the tracks here. Deep folk blues make up the calm and reflective title track that opens the album. Clouds wisp by like motifs and thoughts as Beth coo’s, speaks and sings different ideas over a gauze of rock. The flutes and xylophones of ‘Friday Night’ give a twinkling innocence and femininity to a beautiful track. ‘Haunted Satelilite’ feels like a sonic twin of it but darker in mood.
‘Fractals’ is as upbeat and poppy as the album gets. It’s one of the few times we get chunky drum beats and Beth matches it with a slap-happy bassline and a simple piano and synth riff. The other more immediate standout is the superb ‘Forever Young’. It merges together the trip-hop beats of early Beth Orton records with current Orton darker moods and sensibilities. Having a haunted distant backing vocal selection and a groovy but sinister squirty moog-like synth jamming along sells the mystical caravan style of the album perfectly. ‘Unwritten’ takes all that’s before it and sucks out the bottom end of the production for an airy finale.
As always, Beth Orton takes her time with these songs. With only two under the five-minute mark, they are all given time to breathe. This is crucial for making ‘Weather Alive’ work as an album. Beth’s written this album to feel like waves of emotion and that needs the listener to sink into the emotion and then float away again. With songs having proper intros and outros, we get this. In the age of the three-minute pop song now being two and a half, this skill is very much appreciated.
Give the album time and a few listens. At first I thought ‘this is a mood’ but didn’t really take too much away from individual tracks. I still found myself drawn to being in the space of the music though and over the course of the last few days, I’m discovering so much more with each listen and really enjoying the adventures it takes you. It may have been a seven-year wait, but there’s no question whether Beth’s music is still alive. It is.
Recommeneded track: Forever Young
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