Beth Orton | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Beth Orton 

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What a difference a hyphen can make. Someone somewhere once called Beth Orton a "techno-folkie," and through critical echolalia the tag has stuck to her like bubble gum. Whoever came up with it, it's a publicist's dream: since the release of her 1997 album, Trailer Park (Dedicated), she's been pitched like a Hollywood blockbuster: "Bob, you gotta hear this Beth Orton. She's the Chemical Brothers meet Sandy Denny!" Orton was in fact discovered by electronica producer William Orbit and made her U.S. debut singing on the Chemical Brothers' Exit Planet Dust. But like most artists of promise, she seems to have read her press and taken off in the opposite direction. For much of her new album, Central Reservation (Arista), she discards the cool dance beats and twittering keyboards of Trailer Park for more stately, soulful arrangements, showcasing her velvet alto and swiftly maturing songcraft. For the most part her lyrics wallow in romantic longing and disappointment, but on "Pass in Time," the record's emotional center, Orton plunges deeper, recalling the deaths of her father (who suffered a heart attack when she was 11) and mother (who succumbed to breast cancer eight years later) and reaching for a sense of peace and understanding. The title track follows, given a quiet, mostly acoustic reading by Orton and guitarist Ted Barnes, and a sprightly techno reprise closes the record, courtesy of Everything but the Girl's Ben Watt. But his programmed drums and clucking keyboards do little more than subvert Orton's yearning vocals, confirming that at this point techno has more to gain from Orton than she has to gain from techno. She'll perform on the second stage at the Guinness Fleadh; last year that stage was the fest's biggest rip-off, erected under a big-top tent with severely curtailed sight lines, but this time promoters are promising an open-air setup. Saturday, 6:25 PM, Chicago Motor Speedway, Sportsman's Park, 3301 S. Laramie, Cicero; 312-559-1212. J.R. JONES


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