• Dawn Chorus
• Something More Beautiful
• Call Me The Breeze
• Poison Tree
• See Through Blue
• Last Leaves Of Autumn
• State Of Grace
• Mystery It’s been six years since Beth Orton’s last long-player, but Sugaring Season has been well worth the wait. A sublime album of beautifully crafted songs, it harks back to the core and substance of her big-selling debut Trailer Park and that record’s cracking follow-up, Central Reservation. But, rather than a regression in style, Sugaring Season introduces a fresh and vital newness to Orton’s sound; rich in melodic know-how, with shimmering orchestrations and delicately brittle vocals, it’s her most assured album to date and one that benefits from the wealth of knowing maturity and experience that Orton brings to this release.
That’s not to say that Orton’s trademark air of vulnerability is absent from Sugaring Season. It’s in plain sight from the outset, with the repeated “Silence me and I won’t be here anymore” on opener ‘Magpie’, to the assertion that “I just found another way to cry” on ‘Candles’. But when her vocal comes in on ‘Something More Beautiful’ an intangible authority is evident; the paper-thin delicacy still exists but here it is subordinate to an unfamiliar note of confidence. That confidence is sensitively underscored by the authoritative, pulsing drive of jazz legend Brian Blade’s drumming, which, along with the piano and bass of Rob Burger and Sebastian Steinberg, builds to an orchestral chorus of majestic sweep. But Orton’s nuanced vocal always remains front and centre throughout the album, thanks to the splendid production of Tucker Martine.
Sugaring Season refers to the tapping of maple trees and the process of making maple syrup – a major industry in Portland, Oregon, where the album was recorded. It’s perhaps ironic, then, that the album is anything but sweet and sticky. The world-weariness and raw emotion of the songs prevent any such possibility, but Orton has been careful to ensure that nothing here is maudlin or overly depressing – merely dipped in that toothsome melancholy that she does so very well. The only song that threatens to break the mood is the jaunty waltz, ‘See Through Blue’, but the restraint and musicianship of the performers keeps it just on-side. Still, it makes one wonder what a Beth Orton album of such songs would be like.
As Orton’s career has progressed some have bemoaned the disappearance of the electronic and trip-hop elements of her earlier work. Most of Sugaring Season continues this progression, but in the light of the ’80s videogame-like intro to ‘Candles’ perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing after all. Always a difficult one to classify, Orton’s sound has been, not un-humorously, labelled ‘folktronica’. Dropping the second element of this contraction is appropriate, and her sound now is closer to the ‘f’ word than ever before. Still, this artist has always been a law unto her own impulses, and this latest record rewards them well. Sublime in its yearning, raw-nerve atmosphere, Sugaring Season deserves to go down as a modern classic; we should all be looking six years ahead to 2018 if that’s how long it takes for Beth Orton to produce another album of such rare and beguiling beauty.
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