Wall-to-wallowing carpet

The songs on British folk singer Beth Orton's "Trailer Park" will brighten any Winnebago.

Published June 27, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

putting on a record is an editorial decision, a way of shaping your story,
changing a room, introducing a character into the plot of your day. Unlike
some rock 'n' roll fans I've known (and lived with), I'm not uneasy with
silence. The comfort of quiet is its own self-reliant reward. Thus every
walk over to the stereo is sparked by desire -- to make the here and now better
(or worse, or just plain different). The small, seemingly insignificant act
of placing a disc in a machine gives birth each time to a whole new sound.
And if you're not changed by the sound, if it doesn't ease your mind or
crack you up or make you fume or scare you into snapping out of self-pity or
something, then why waste the electricity?

Often as not, I like to let songs boss me around. Feeling clumsy? James
Brown still yells at you to shut up and dance. Dumb? Aretha makes you
"Think." Depressed? Merle Haggard says quit your whining because you
think you got problems? He's in jail, broke, drunk, has a blind father, deaf
mother and comes from Oklahoma. And when I'm not playing records
because I need my mommy, then it's because I need a friend, need the Young
Fresh Fellows' charming admission that "When I'm down, I think of you my
friend Ringo" or the Lemonheads' head-patting "It's a Shame About Ray."

Apparently Lemonhead Evan Dando himself is on the buddy watch too. Rumor
has it that he spotted 26-year-old English singer-songwriter-scenester Beth
Orton in a London pub and snapped her up as a tour mate. And that was before
her comely new album, "Trailer Park" (Dedicated), came into being. What
Dando might have heard in her voice in that bar, and what I hear in her
record, is a skilled experiment of superimposing airy, folky, Anglo melodies
onto (you'd think) clashing hip-hopped beats.

I like "Trailer Park" but I don't know what to do with it. The first
time I played it, I felt the shock of recognition. Despite its formal
freshness, it didn't change the sound in the room or the sound in my head, it
was the room, is my head. And frankly, I've had it up to here with me
and my apartment. There's a glittery lake out the window and a lot of
clutter inside. Orton's songs strike that balance between nature and
culture, between her pure, sea-of-green voice backed by earthy strings and
guitar and the urban club cool of dance-rhythm synths.

If Orton is out on a dance floor, she's dancing alone ... slow. On "Tangent,"
a disquieting space-beat introduction gives way to her casual humming.
Hearing this murmur -- and it lasts less than 10 seconds before she starts
singing actual words about how she's "lost in a tangent" -- feels like
eavesdropping, as if the loner swaying with her eyes closed doesn't know
everyone out on the floor can hear her moans. It's a beautiful reverie, but
if you spend your whole life fending off daydreams, then why play someone
else's? Lost in a tangent? I live in one.

Orton's loveliest song, the low-key ballad "How Far," probably does me
the least bit of good of all. Her voice has a sweet, no-nonsense twinge of
apathy when she talks about how it doesn't matter whether she stays or goes,
how "it doesn't make a bit of difference anymore, anyway." I can't use these
words or the nonchalant sound that backs them, which is a shame considering
that it's such a nice tune. I mean, I need a kick in the pants here. I want
some inspiration, some singer or drummer or accordion player or whatever
telling me stuff matters, to quit staring off into space and act now! because
it might be too late. Orton points out, "It's easy to forget how far we've
come" and that might be true for the both of us. Well, I don't know about
her, but I could profit by some maniac like Iggy Pop egging me
on with standards to "Search and Destroy."

The only part of "How Far" I can salvage is the
circles she draws around the sentiment "I had to be here." It's the only
time on the entire pretty record when she takes a stand, when she quits
daydreaming and doesn't-mattering long enough to risk speaking in exclamation

But that's just me. I reckon Orton's cloudy lyricism might spruce up your
room if it's too urban or too landlocked or too loud, or rearrange your head
if it's too frenetic or too focused or too loud. Her songs bear a gorgeous,
if precarious, peace that could inspire daydreams if that's what you're
lacking. Because the most striking recordings to you will always
redecorate whatever place you inhabit.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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