Beth Orton


Jeff Stark
February 17, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

It's best to appreciate Beth Orton as an aesthete would, to love the beauty of her voice for the beauty of her voice. In other words, the young English folkie is a wonderful singer -- and a terrible poet.

Orton's got one of Those Voices. Her lilt could jerk tears with corny limericks. It's warm and gauzy, like Sunday morning. Orton's also a smart collaborator: On her sophomore "Central Reservation" she allies herself with dense conductors like Mazzy Star's David Roback and Tindersticks producer Victor Van Vugt, along with soulful players like Ben Harper and the post-Spiritualized cool Dr. John. With that kind of help, "Central Reservation," like Orton's 1996 "Trailer Park," ingeniously fuses folk songs with electronic sounds lifted from dance floors and the outer, more experimental fringe.

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Joni Mitchell's folk did the same thing back in the early 1970s with Laurel Canyon-hippie-cowboy rock. She, much like Orton, was the bright, privately sensitive girl who partied with the boys while they were knocking out hit records. There's another similarity: Orton borrows Mitchell's phrasing, even though her voice is more temperate, without that sometimes grating trill. The difference is that Mitchell could write. Think of the way the last verse of "Big Yellow Taxi" -- the one where her man walks out and climbs into a cab -- gives a protest song about saving trees and DDT an ironic sucker punch: "Don't know what you've got till it's gone."

Not so Orton. The songs on "Central Reservation" aren't Jewel stupid; they're just sort of clichid and banal. Orton's the kind of writer who uses weak similes like "She's as deep as a well," and then repeats the line to convey significance. It's not that she has nothing to say, but it's unrewarding to pay attention. On the Terry Callier duet "Pass in Time," she's gazing at the human soul's big-picture insignificance. She looks at regrets as "lessons we haven't heard yet" on the breezy "Sweetest Decline." And angels -- angels! -- appear on the echoey, acoustic "Devil's Song." Sill, Orton's voice is so disarmingly good that it's worth ignoring her words. Let them pass over like pretty, empty syllables. To misquote a phrase used by the 19th century aesthetes, "l'beauti pour l'beauti."

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The Del McCoury Band
THE FAMILY | CEILI MUSIC
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BY WILLIAM HOGELAND | Don't look for genre-bending roots eclecticism from the Del McCoury Band. "The Family" offers some of the straightest contemporary bluegrass available. Some of the best, too. That's why the band has natural allies outside the genre's mainstream. (Steve Earle, sure, but also Phish.) On "The Family," textures and chops are unparalleled -- particularly Ronnie McCoury's mandolin lines, which consistently shimmer, drum and bite -- yet virtuosity always serves group swing. Familiar indeed, the sound is also beautifully balanced, freshly polished: no strained, breakneck picking, no earsplitting close-enough harmony. Del McCoury's lead vocals remain piercing and intense.

If the album has a drawback, it's the songs' ephemerality. Bluegrass this accomplished often relies on Victoriana -- lonesome winds, hearts as hard as stone -- instead of distinctive songwriting. Wit can pierce the veil, as in Mark Simos' "Darlin', since you're leavin',/Don't you think it's time to go?" The band also renovates the Lovin' Spoonful's "Nashville Cats," a song whose adulation of redneck picking sent Yankees to Nashville and helped spark the '60s bluegrass craze, in which Del McCoury first made a name.

But the memorable songs on "The Family" are its two gospel numbers, "Get Down on Your Knees and Pray" and "The City of Stone." Not surprising; bluegrass vocals sprang from Southern gospel's athleticism and anguish. Bill Monroe's "Get Down on Your Knees" recalls the haunting plangency of the Monroe Brothers and the brother-duet idiom in which they excelled, before Bill lit out and concocted bluegrass. "City of Stone" is a spiritual nightmare in an admirably restrained musical setting: eerie lead fiddle, Del's singing left naked and alone, with the subtlest help from other voices. That sort of maturity and taste make "The Family" both a primer for the bluegrass-curious and a refresher for the jaded.

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The Damnations TX
HALF MAD MOON | SIRE
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-->BY TONY SCHERMAN | Smart, tuneful roots-rock from Austin, Texas. This trio revolves around sisters Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly, who write the songs and sing 'em. Boone plays bass, Kelly guitar, and they're joined by Louisianian Rob Bernard, who picks spunky if unspectacular lead guitar and banjo. Austinites by way of upstate New York, Boone and Kelly absorbed a world of influences from their parents' record collection: the Beatles, Southern rock, bluegrass, Bob Dylan (can you find the sly lift from "This Wheel's on Fire"?) and straight-ahead country. There's a punk aesthetic at work here, too. "Half Mad Moon's" dashed-off, slightly ragged feel is less a product of naiveti than a deliberate choice. The songs are chunky little affairs, the music's homebuilt simplicity effectively countered by the lyrics' imagination and dry wit. In "Kansas," a lawman from back East shakes his head at the savage goings-on in Kansas, bleedin' Kansas, circa 1850; the very next song, "Black Widow," leaps to 1990s Austin, where the sisters mournfully, if wryly, memorialize a stolen amplifier: "Nothing now is gonna sound the same/Oh, the damn thing even had a name/We called her Black Widow/Even though she's blue." If I had to make a comparison, I'd call Boone and Kelly a down-home, tougher version of the McGarrigles. They've got potential in spades. Ain't no telling how good they'll sound in five years, and they sound pretty damn good now.

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Bad Livers
INDUSTRY AND THRIFT | SUGAR HILL
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-->BY WILIAM HOGELAND | "Industry and Thrift" may be more nearly related to Wyclef Jean's hip-hop collage "Carnival" than to the bluegrass and punk-rock purism with which Bad Livers are so often branded. All the more impressive, then, that given its high degree of artistic ambition, the album is so short on pretentiousness. Good spirits abound. Livers eschew roots-rock clichi. "Industry and Thrift" may therefore be the roots-rock album of the turn of the century.

Which century, though, remains a question. Like roots rock, punk also had its first heyday in the mid-'70s, but with notable exceptions didn't then mix with country or soul. Now we take for granted that punk-related music can fraternize with hoedown, with blues, even with New Orleans parade. (Greg Garing, impresario of New York's Alphabet City Opry, looks like a Goth yet has a firmer grasp of the country idiom than anyone else in two generations.) But still: Can punk rock usefully be equated with ragtime, even with band concerts in small-town squares? If "Industry and Thrift" has anything to say about it, yes.

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Bad Livers have recently stripped down. Danny Barnes and Mark Rubin are touring as a duet. (Barnes also tours and records solo; Rubin leads the klezmer group Rubinchik's Okestyr.) Favored sidemen and clever multi-tracking give "Industry and Thrift" its rich, seductive textures. The sound is deeply burnished but rough. What's punk and folk is the DIY ruggedness, the pervasive skepticism, native to garage and church, about the worth of mere chops. Brilliant sonic effects are built of herky-jerk fragments. The whole thing could fall apart at any moment.

When Bad Livers do give in to straight bluegrass, and Barnes indulges in effortless clusters of Scruggs picking, your ears may actually prick up. Other parts may too. This is what bluegrass sounded like -- too warm and fast and tight, too dizzily hospitable -- the first time you heard it. Redeeming that blessed, silly moment is but one minor pleasure among "Industry and Thrift's" many major accomplishments.


Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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