By Will Hermes
Updated February 06, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Comfort of Strangers

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In the mid-’90s, Beth Orton was electronica music’s slacker seraph, emerging from the dry ice and flashing lights of rave-land in a wrinkled T-shirt to bring you down easy by dawn’s early light. Her fuzzy invocations over tracks by William Orbit and the Chemical Brothers warmed their chilly beats like a woolen jumper. But by the time of her proper debut, Trailer Park, in 1997, it was clear she had a dual allegiance. Made with guitars, dulcimers, violins, and woody double basses, and sung with a jazzy, British phrasing that recalled adventurous ’70s troubadour John Martyn (whose ”Don’t Wanna Know About Evil” was her early signature), it showed an artist as interested in folk-rock past as in cyber-rock future.

Central Reservation (1999) and Daybreaker (2002) followed a similar path, sometimes gilding acoustic songs with electronics, sometimes letting programmers construct beat ballads in the vein of Portishead’s Dummy, the 1994 CD whose influence on the modern sound of female singer-songwriter pop is still being felt. When Orton began work on Comfort of Strangers with top electronic producer Kieran Hebden (a.k.a. Four Tet), who did impressive work on her 2003 remix set, The Other Side of Daybreak, one expected wonderful, if not unfamiliar, things.

In the end, Comfort was produced by Jim O’Rourke, an eccentric rocker with a taste for folk best known for his recent work with Wilco. Was this a Fiona Apple-style change of aesthetic heart? Did label pressures figure into it? Whatever the case, Comfort is Orton’s most naked, traditional-sounding CD, built on piano, acoustic guitar, and loose-limbed percussion played mainly by Orton, O’Rourke, and drumming cohort Tim Barnes.

It’s a reasonable move. Electronic music has lately experienced an unfortunate loss of brand loyalty, while Norah Jones has spurred a boom time for straightforward singer-songwriters. And as she gives herself less sonic detail to hide in, Orton, now 35, rallies her songwriting and vocals to do things they’ve never done before. The opener, ”Worms,” takes a metaphor from silly to sexual to biblical over jaunty, Apple-style piano, tossing in a bit of haunted, howling scat. Throughout Comfort, her phrasing is both more precise and more playful than ever, as her voice provides texture once supplied by electronics.

Still, her vocals and melodies — and her lyrical probing of love (romantic or cosmic/hippie varieties) — tend toward the diaphanous, and DJ drum programs always helped ground them. Here, the most compelling cuts — like the irresistible ”Shopping Trolley,” co-written with indie bluesman M. Ward, and the single ”Conceived” — also ride strong rhythms. Maybe that’s because when a singer sounds as emotionally windswept as Orton is, it’s comforting when she has something to hold on to.

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Comfort of Strangers

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