Beth Orton first surfaced on several of William Orbit’s meandering dance tracks — 1992’s ”WaterFromAVineLeaf” sounds like an early blueprint for his work with Madonna — and found minor fame singing with beat-happy bands the Chemical Brothers and Red Snapper, though her voice often got lost in all the electronic glop. That changed with her debut album, ’97’s ”Trailer Park.” Shedding Orbit, Orton mixed traditional songcraft in with the electronics, revealing one of pop’s prettiest voices — clear and clean and capable of making even the most mawkish cliché sound utterly convincing.
But ”Trailer Park” lacked focus; it was more an accomplished demonstration of her vocal talents than a cohesive album. With the fully formed ”Central Reservation,” Orton completes her transformation into throwback troubadour, casting off most of the canned beats and electronic textures for a strummy sound closer to plaintive ’70s singer-songwriters like Carole King and English folkies such as Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson (although Everything But the Girl’s Ben Watt does funk up two songs).
It’s a move guaranteed to rankle her hipster champions, who’ll no doubt recoil at ”Central Reservation” ‘s lack of stylistic ambition. But so what if album opener ”Stolen Car” sounds enough like Natalie Merchant to make Orton the dippy diva of the next decade? It’s immediately followed by a remarkable string of heartrending weepers, including the slithery ”Couldn’t Cause Me Harm,” the soaring, seven-minute ”Pass in Time” (which boasts backing vocals from underappreciated soul-boho Terry Callier), and the bare-bones ”Feel to Believe,” a ballad made more powerful by its acoustic simplicity. Sometimes it’s enough just to let a great singer sing, and on ”Central Reservation” Orton’s vocals are consistently stunning.