In the mid to late 1990s, with her debut Trailer Park and sophomore record Central Reservation, Beth Orton carved out a niche for herself. Both albums tapped into concurrent strains of that era’s pop music—folk, electronica, and trip hop—added a touch of soul, and melded it all into a captivating, unique sound. They became her most celebrated albums. She scored a UK Top 10 with 2002’s Daybreaker, but struggled with health issues, along with the demands of being a touring musician. After having children in 2006, and 2011, she balanced a focus on motherhood with life as a studio artist. The under the radar albums that occasionally followed were a tidal ebb and flow between the folk and electronic poles of her music, and cemented her status as a cult favorite.
Weather Alive, Orton’s first album in six years, could have sounded tentative. Instead, it’s quietly assured, and refreshed, incorporating jazz into her trademark electro-folk. It’s akin to opening all of the windows in the house to greet an oncoming cool front. Every song sounds like a lungful of brisk, revitalizing air. Orton, a talented acoustic guitar player, wrote most of the record on an old upright piano. This change in process, along with recently relocating from Los Angeles back to Britain, gives the album a palpable sense of perspective.
The pensive title track, a meditation on love, identity, and spiritual restoration, opens the album. Each rolling note of the piano sounds like a sentence in a conversation, and is woven into a palette of woodwinds, brass, and keyboards that recalls Cassandra Jenkins’ indie-minded ambient jazz. The dynamic “Fractals,” which is about as upbeat as the album gets, is punctuated by fluttering trumpet, and gives later period Paul Simon (or Damon Albarn’s recent solo records) a run for its money. “Haunted Satellite” shuffles and swirls, as if it’s thinking out loud. It’s one of many tracks supported by the inventive rhythm section of bassist Tom Herbert and drummer Tom Skinner (fresh off his work as part of The Smile).
The songs of Weather Alive, notably the warmly twinkling “Friday Night” and moody, muted Blue Nile-esque “Unwritten,” draw you towards Orton’s voice, a somewhat deeper version of her alluringly unique mix of husky warble and delicate croon. Her phrasing is poised and unguarded. Her evolved vocals, coupled with the album’s jazzy arrangements, bring to mind Joni Mitchell’s later work.
The way the album sounds also deserves praise. Orton produced it herself, crafting a spacious, but intimate, mood that pulls the listener close. It’s like being offered a cup of tea and a comfy chair in the corner of her bedroom studio as she records.
Weather Alive is atmospheric and substantive. It’s not only Orton’s most compelling work in years, but one of her best albums, full stop. It’s also a reassuring, fascinating reminder that even the smallest change can usher in a new way of seeing our art, our relationships, and ourselves. | Mike Rengel