960 - Beth Orton 'Trailer Park' (1996)

My Rating: 1.55 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: X
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): 68/--

Favourite Tracks: She Cries Your Name, Touch Me With Your Love
Least-Favourite Tracks: Whenever, I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine

I listen to music for a living which is usually a wonderful way to pay the mortgage, though today I spent 8 hours listening to nothing but Christmas songs. Ropey old Christmas songs; some with ruddy pan pipes. After that kind of ear-battering I thought I'd relax by listening to the next record in the all-time top 1000 list, but uh-oh, B.O... wouldn't you know it, but it's another Beth Orton album. My heart sank & my ears almost started ringing in anticipation; you see her 'Central Reservation' album featured just a short time ago (here at no. 982) & it proved a painful listen, largely on account of her excruciating vocals. Compared to that racket, I'd take another 8 hours of pan pipes anyday. But this is a different album, her debut, perhaps this one will be better?

Err, no. And here's a little audio montage to demonstrate what I mean:

Here's the problem. Beth Orton can't sing. I know, I know, there's plenty of great singers who can't hold a tune (and I like loads of them) but some voices just annoy you so much that you can no longer hear the music. For some people it's Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, Cher or Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey, Edith Piaf, and so on. For me it appears to be Beth Orton. If you took a pancake & ironed it, then drove over it with a Sherman tank, it would still not be as flat as Beth Orton's vocals.

What makes it worse is she does her own backing vocals as well. So that means we get three Ortons simultaneously failing to hit three different, yet very flat, notes. (Why didn't the producer suggest some decent backing singers? 'Quirky' voices can sound fine with decent backing harmonies). Then there's the tone; she has this thin, reedy quality that makes her sound like a singing kazoo. And as far as emotion goes Orton doesn't really have enough control of her voice to vary the delivery, so we get the same expressionless drone whether it's an uplifting feelgood number or a sad emotional ballad. Oh & perhaps the greatest sin of all is she sounds a lot like Dido.

Having said all that, every review I've seen has nothing but praise for Orton's vocals so I realise I'm out on my own on this one. And I'll concede there are also times when her voice can work pretty well. She Cries Your Name has a really organic feel, with scratchy strings, double bass & low-key yet funky drums; it's an unusual arrangement & Orton's vocals sit comfortably in that context. The blend of acoustic elements, such as dulcimers or bouzoukis with electronic music is definitely another successful element of the album. But faced with the lush orchestral backing of a ballad like Don't Need A Reason & Orton just does not have the voice to carry it off.

As good as the music is, it all becomes rather irrelevant if the singer just sounds like a walking set of bagpipes.


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