Beth Orton: Weather Alive [Album Review]

Beth Orton
Weather Alive
Partisan Records [2022]

When Beth Orton came on the scene in the mid-nineties with her mix of folk and electronica, aided by then boyfriend and producer William Orbit, it was her distinctive vocals and provocative poetic lyrics that made her music special. The British singer/songwriter went on to collaborate with the techno band The Chemical Brothers, made a couple albums in the alternative folk vein, was one of those performing songs for the tribute concert film Leonard Cohen; I’m Your Man (2006), and sang a duet with Nick Cave at an Allen Ginsberg tribute concert in 2015, the same year she played the lead in the British indie film, Light Years. While Orton has shared production responsibilities in the past, she’s the sole producer of Weather Alive, her eighth studio album, and her first since 2016’s Kidsticks.

On her bandcamp page, Orton describes this latest project as a “sensory exploration” inspired by the purchase of an old “cheap, crappy” upright piano she picked up in the Camden Market. “Through the resonance and sound of a beaten-up old piano,” Orton found “acceptance and a way of healing” that she communicates in the “deeply meditative atmosphere” and the yearning of her voice. While the songs she’s written emanate from the cautious smattering of piano notes and her vocals, Orton calls on mutli-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, jazz drummer Tom Skinner (The Smile), bassist Tom Herbert (The Invisible), and Alabaster dePlume on sax. Her piano lines are sprinkled throughout, often in a loop, or as accents, creating the feel of a moody, jazz improvisation even though the individual contributions of the musicians were recorded separately in the pandemic. It’s Orton’s meticulous production, and artistic vision that brings it all together as a lush atmospheric meditation.

With titles like “Haunted Satellite” and “Lonely” you get a sense of the moody space that Orton occupies but it’s her thoughtful use of language and cautious vocal delivery that elevates her perceptions to art. In “Lonely” she asks, “Will you be the Welsh choir on the wind/All roaring and swearing at the ocean?/Will you be the ash of a well-tended fire?/Will you be the ambush of my desire?” Only to conclude that “Lonely, lonely, lonely likes my company.” Even when she repeats a word again and again, as she does at the end of “Lonely,” singing that title word repeatedly, each time it’s said with attention to its meaning and the underlying emotions that give it purpose. Orton’s vocals can sound hesitant at times, or broken, or flow over the melody effortlessly, at times it feels like she’s breathing each phrase with meaning born of the moment, the melody an improvisation as the words find shape with each breath.

While not jazz, per se, Orton’s interaction with the music, at times reverberates with the same energy as Joni Mitchell’s later, jazzier creations, although the mood and vocal delivery are completely of her own creation. In the title track, Orton is swept up in appreciation for the natural world of her experience: “Almost makes me wanna cry/The weather’s so beautiful outside.” The piano notes floating in the sea of sound, you can almost feel the wind in the song’s rhythms. The saxophone is used less frequently but dePlume is an asset wherever his presence is felt, especially on “Arms Around A Memory.” In “Fractals,” the one song in 8 where the rhythm section percolates, it sounds as if there’s a quick interplay of repeated notes either on a marimba or keyboard, with Orton’s wordless vocals floating as dePlume imitates the melody. It’s a form of musical alchemy that matches Orton’s lyric, where “you start to believe in magic.”

“Weather Alive” / “Lonely” / “Fractals”

The Weather Station / Joni Mitchell / Mitski

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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