#14: Beth Orton - "Central Reservation" (1999)

There was a time, not that long ago, when the response from my friends as I would be on the cusp of enthusing about an album I had just discovered was to cut me off mid-flow. "Ethereal female vocals with a modern twist on the folk singer-songwriter with chanteuse and / or electronic elements?" they would say, accompanied with the most endearing eye-roll possible. I would agree, shaken, like the tablecloth had been whisked away without disturbing a single piece of cutlery. But I got the picture, eventually. Mournful-sounding ladies are very much my 'hing. Yet, somehow, I have let Beth Orton completely pass me by. Until now.

Central Reservation gained Orton her second Mercury Music Prize nomination and it's easy to see why. That sensation of having heard an album before though you can't consciously think when that would be possible, then you realise how impactful it must have been on release, how much effect it still has, that that's kind of the point. Orton has a distinct voice and register, less on the Kate Bush and PJ Harvey end of the spectrum and more towards Feist and Laura Marling. Trying to describe her sound gets me running into paradoxes. She's husky but clear, deep but soaring, tender but bold. An utterly remarkable voice that isn't clipped to be more conventionally appealing, that is magnetic nonetheless. There's nothing wan about the musical arrangements. They are robust, bursting forth with jazz, folk and rock touches that feel anything but derivative. 

And yet... You can have too much of a good thing. There's not much variation between songs and each track feels like it's made its point then goes on for another minute. Maybe something meditative is the aim, which is definitely achieved, but there's a sense of stretch and repetition that held this back from being really spectacular for me. When an album speaks to you, or rather, gives you the language for certain experiences you had difficulty finding yourself, it's best when it doesn't drone or blur. But then I'm someone who doesn't think our attention spans are shortening and that brevity is an underrated virtue. Perhaps this is the anathema of art but I'd happily have Orton as a guest at any dinner party, with this playing on a low volume in the background. Soft, welcoming, setting a certain energetic tone but not engaging for full focus.

Altogether, quite polite - and I can't help but feel Orton deserves to make her demands known.