Review: Beth Orton – ‘Sugaring Season’

A mature and focused Autumn record, with subtle melancholy and a strong sense of musical magic.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

The voice that cradled my soul on Trailer Park was that of  a tragic and lonely woman who seemed so close to the edge she could smell the other side. Her brilliant cover of The Ronettes “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine” devastated me. I still tear up when I hear it. Now, sixteen years later, I’m reviewing Beth Orton’s latest release Sugaring Season. Since Trailer Park she has released a few records, gotten married, become a mother and re-established her Norfolk roots. Has it become too much? Has all this taken away from the angelic voice I fell so madly in love with?

Nope, not on any level.

Orton is still the siren call that would cause me to crash my ship into the rocks. Sugaring Season is a mature and focused record that’s still very free and light. The subtle melancholy of Orton’s voice remains just under the surface of her magical pipes. A restrained power burns from within her, as if she knows the Gods can hear her so she holds back and that push-pull is what makes her so potent. Orton still conjures images when she sings and she still weaves lyrics that pierce right through your heart with rich melodies. Complexity surrounds Sugaring Season. It comes from Orton’s voice, her range and the music she sings over.

Sugaring Seasonis an autumn record. Much like the novel The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury or Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, Sugaring Season creates images of chilly nights, gentle winds and those colors and textures inherent to fall. “Magpie” opens with a beautiful acoustic guitar playing low as strings dance around it. Orton sings with great resound, as if she’s announcing her new album. Orton never falters, her voice raises and lowers when she needs it to, no matter what the music is doing. Loud or soft, the music does not dictate what Orton’s voice does in any song.

“Candles”, with the easy beat and low rumble keys, is the first real taste of fall. The music is low, ominous. Orton’s gorgeous narration is rapid fire before opening up into a flying chorus. The blend of the darkly textured acoustics, keys and strings, as well as Orton’s vocals, make “Candles” feel almost like a ghost story. The kind of thing you’d hear while carving pumpkins on your back porch as the chilly night falls over you.

 “Something More Beautiful” will, I guarantee it, go into Orton’s catalog as a staple. This is a soul driven folk song that shows Orton stepping into an arena with the likes of Carol King, Nina Simone, Barbara Cook and Patti Smith. A weeping piano and bluesy drums are often betrayed by an orchestral eruption that raises “Something More Beautiful” just slightly ahead of almost anything else Orton has done . Her voice drizzles slowly throughout the tune. As Orton’s power builds with the music you can’t help but get goose bumps. It’s absolutely magical.

“Call Me The Breeze” soundsexactly like the breeze. The music bustles like a good driving tune as Orton, doubling her vocals, plays off both sides of what she’s singing. Neither side is dominant, instead Orton allows each voice to bring something new to the table. That dichotomy and playfulness opens the whole song up.  “Call Me The Breeze” is the bright fall day. The one where you’re driving to see the changing leaves and drink pumpkin flavored coffee.

 “See Through Blue” comes off like it was lifted from an old Broadway musical. When Orton sings “Waking with you makes each day divine/well there ain’t nothing better to do with my time”, over a swaying piano, it is undeniably Broadway. “See Through Blue” sounds nothing like the rest of Sugaring Season but it still works.

Each song here is it’s own triumph, but the final tune, “Mystery”, is nothing short of perfect. A folk song driven by a ghost violin and mellow acoustic guitars, “Mystery” is both sad and inviting. Lines like “Come and rest your bones, you look awful tired” makes the song almost a sad lullaby. Something comforting and yet despondent. This the last time Orton will sing to us on Sugaring Season and what we’re left with is angelic. Her voice actually glows in a way you feel as well as hear. If “Mystery” doesn’t move you then you have no soul to speak of.

While the whole of Sugaring Season has the feel of a crisp and dark fall night, it also brings Beth Orton into a more mature sound. Taking what she’s done in the past, from electronica to folk, Orton purifies it, taking only what truly moves her. With Sugaring Season Orton has found the heart of her talent and the soul of her voice. We mere mortals are lucky we can share this extraordinary journey with her.