by Ed Biggs
The hybrid genre of so-called ‘folktronica’ is more in vogue now than in any point in last 20 years, but English singer-songwriter Beth Orton was laying languid beats underneath acoustic guitars when the likes of Alt-J were still learning to walk. As a regular guest vocalist for The Chemical Brothers, Orton was the comedown queen, a sultry siren guiding bleary-eyed ravers back to reality. Subtle flourishes of electronica and Sunday morning rhythms embellished her first two widely-released albums, 1996’s Trailer Park and 1999’s Central Reservation, both critically revered and nominated for Mercury Prizes as she even scooped Best British Female at the 2000 BRIT Awards. However, upon the turn of the millennium, her albums became rather more conventional and infrequent as she concentrated on raising her two young children.
Her sixth album, and first in four years since the pretty but forgettable Sugaring Season, sees Fuck Buttons’ noise terrorist Andrew Hung tasked with bringing a previously respected but sadly forgotten name back to prominence. Kidsticks is the quirky and sometimes brilliant result. Textures are the key here, rather than the easy-going hooks of her glory years, with Hung’s fingerprints all over the percussion and hi-hat loops and overlapping vocal snippets of opener ‘Snow’ as Orton murmurs “I’ll astrally project myself / into the life of someone else” in her inimitable way, and the more ambient-leaning highlights ‘Dawnstar’ and ‘Falling’.
Old fans will detect a familiar vibe to a lot of it – lead single ‘Moon’ particularly evoking the kind of sonic bed that the Chemical Brothers used to make for her in the ‘90s, while the cross-rhythms of ‘Wave’, the gentle ‘Flesh And Blood’ and the strong beat and rhythm of new single ‘1973’ also feel very much like Orton is back doing what she does best. Towards the end of the record, Orton’s presence is lost in the production a little too much, with the spoken-word haze of ‘Corduroy Legs’ being a little too subtle for its own good.
Kidsticks isn’t a re-tread of old territory per se, but more of an update, a fresh approach to an existing design, distinctive enough to stand on its own and retaining enough of the familiar for it to count as a return to form. Orton’s voice remains as curiously expressive as ever, lending genuine heartfelt resonance to the likes of ‘Flesh And Blood’, the most normal-sounding track here, and giving off the appropriate dispassionate atmosphere for the more rhythm-orientated abstractions. (7/10)
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Tags: album, Andrew Hung, Anti, Beth Orton, Ed Biggs, Kidsticks, review
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