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Central Reservation

music reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: Central Reservation

Artist: Beth Orton
Genre: Rock/Pop
Release Date: March 1999

Review by LarryG
2½ stars out of 4

Beth Orton is one of the more interesting singer/songwriters to emerge in the last few years. She's an expressive writer, a real poet with a deep sadness underlying her work. Orton has often found appealing music to accompany her words. In the past, she worked with the Chemical Brothers with Orton's cool reserve appealingly contrasting the beats. Trailer Park, her solo debut, was a good mix of straight folk songs, folk rock and a few songs with a good dance beat. On Central Reservation, I miss the folk rock. Orton creates interesting characters with her lyrics but the music can drag. It doesn't always draw you to the words like it should. Orton's singing can be awkward and whiny.

When the music is as strong as the lyrics, Central Reservation is very impressive. Orton's naturally melancholy vocals have more life when they keep up with a steady beat. On Stolen Car, Orton's vocals appealingly twist around the music, speeding up and slowing down her delivery. Strings added to the generally stark sound add to the good tense atmosphere. Referring to a manipulative ex, Orton sings,"while every line speaks the language of love, it never held the meaning I was thinking of." Sometimes the quiet approach works. With a moody piano from Dr. John and strings, Sweetest Decline has a nice, jazzy feel. Stars All Seem to Weep has atmospheric keyboards plus beats for the trip hop sound Orton has succeeded with before. She sadly sings of being beyond a time "when food and love was all that left a hunger." Some of the slower songs are just boring and need some energy. So Much More has a sad, pure emotion but it's almost musically inert. Orton's voice is often a little unsteady but on Pass In Time she's plain out of tune and her harmonies with a male singer are pretty awful. Blood Red River, about a sad journey from the Lilac Lily Glade, asks the question, why must people always want what they can't have? The Devil Song tells about how tryin' to rectify can get you lost a little further. The lyrics of those songs and the ache in Orton's voice are fascinating but the music is drab and unprepossessing and Orton's awkward, quavering voice can lose you.

There are two versions of the title track on Central Reservation. They illustrate how Orton benefits when her music is more vibrant. Orton comes alive on the dance mix by Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl, who similarly benefitted from a remix of their hit Missing. The buoyant beat matches Orton's lyrics about emerging from a successful romantic encounter with a sense of optimism and possibility. The quieter version is nice but doesn't express the same joy.

In the end, Central Reservation is a matter of taste. Many thoughtful folk fans think it was one of the best records of '99. If you're looking for a quiet, reflective, literate restrained performer and can tolerate Orton's shaky voice and sometimes awkward, downbeat presentation, Central Reservation is the CD for you. I find it a little wearing and would appreciate a little more musical action.



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