Beth Orton - Kidsticks (Review)
Review by Jack Foley
BETH Orton’s vocals have to rate among the most distinct and beautiful in music today. Hence, any new album is something worth celebrating.
Kidsticks, her first new offering since 2012’s Sugaring Season, marks a return to her musical roots of sorts. But while that suggests stripping things down and going all acoustic, in Orton’s case this means something else.
Having relocated to California a couple of years ago, the singer-songwriter began experimenting with a series of electronic loops that would eventually come together as her new album – a record inspired both by the wide-open nature of Los Angeles and the spirit of Beth’s earliest recordings (electronic work with producers like William Orbit, Andrew Weatherall and Kieran Hebden as well as groove-based music with Red Snapper).
Co-produced by Orton and Andrew Hung from F*ck Buttons, the album was recorded with various musician friends in California (including George Lewis Jr. from Twin Shadow on electric guitars, Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor on backing vocals and bass guitar and Dustin O’Halloran from A Winged Victory for the Sullen who provided piano and string arrangements).
Vocals were recorded by Alain Johannes (Queens of the Stone Age/Mark Lanagan Band) and mixed by David Wrench (Caribou/Hot Chip).
The result is, admittedly, a little hit-and-miss. But when it hits, Kidsticks really hits.
Album opener Snow is alive with stirring percussion that expertly offsets the more downbeat nature of the lyrics, which serve as a rumination on the nature of life and the loss of time (a recurring theme of the LP).
Moon, meanwhile, puts those serenely beautiful vocals at the centre of some chugging bass and the kind of playful, oddball electronics that wouldn’t sound out of place on an early Bowie record.
Petals, meanwhile, adopts a woozy electronic refrain reminiscent of classic Faithless with haunted vocals that belatedly proclaim “my tears well up and cry for you”. And it relies on this formula for the first two minutes, before then suddenly bursting to life with a rousing – yet no less haunted – climax. It’s then that the record sounds almost frenzied, almost at odds with itself. But it works a treat.
Lead single 1973 follows and is possibly the most accessible track on the whole LP, it’s jaunty, hip synths drawing one of Orton’s liveliest vocals. It’s almost pop – but the kind of pop that comes with Orton’s sheen. And it’s another highlight, especially once that electronic melody kicks in.
Dawnstar, conversely, drops one of the most atmospheric electronic arrangements beneath another haunted set of vocals, calling to mind the neon-lit LA city-scapes of a Michael Mann crime drama, or Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive.
Falling flirts with the idea of togetherness but also comes with an air of uncertainty lyrically, albeit with another groovy electronic loop and some snappy finger-click beats, while
Just occasionally, the album drifts into overly experimental territory, with the aimless Corduroy Legs hinting at more than it ultimately delivers. While there’s also the odd song that fails to properly ignite, such as Flesh and Blood.
But for the most part, this is another richly fascinating and highly rewarding example of Orton at her best.
Download picks: Petals, 1973, Snow, Dawnstar, Falling