In the digital age, music fans have an unprecedented ease and range of access to the vast vaults of popular music. 95% of the time I think this is a blessing, and I love whirling over my (too-large) music library on iTunes, but there is something to be said for sitting down and spending some time with a single album. The listening experience on my headphones in front of the computer screen is a far different one than I get from rocking out in my living room while doing the dishes, or from the endless spins a record gets once it makes into my car rotation. What I like most about those experiences is actually the removal of choice, the fact that a swish of a mouse can’t interrupt the experience. There is something more honest about this experience, and I think it has to do with giving the artist a little more breathing room in your experience of the work. Really that’s what makes listening rooms and house shows so magical, is their ability to create a brief space in which we recognize just how important songs are to us.
And sometimes, in those rare occasions when you have to spend time with a record entirely outside of your choice, a beautiful connection can be formed. My brother has often told me that he wasn’t really into Wilco until he was stuck driving home from Atlanta one night with my copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stuck in the tape deck. I didn’t really understand the appeal of Animal Collective until a few years ago when I was stuck in the backseat of a friend’s car with Feels blasting. Things like that.
So, getting to Beth Orton. I’ve always been a fan of her work, mainly Central Reservation (1997), but it had been awhile. And, just like my brother, I was stuck driving around my mom’s car for a few days, with an old cassette of Central Reservations playing over and over. Orton has a gorgeously gauzy voice with one of those super-comfortable British accents that made the bleak winter-grey landscape of South Carolina feel warm and cozy over the Christmas week. By the second or third spin through, I was throatily singing along and pondering why I hadn’t returned to Beth Orton in so long. She has four great records and a slew of remixes out there, and whether they are nothing but acoustic guitar and vocal or steeped in electronics and beats, her voice (and this is a cliché, but true) ties it all together. There is a line in one of her songs, “Sweetest Decline,” that describes something as “like catching snow on my tongue.” That’s Orton to me, in a nutshell.
Anyway, normally I would make a more convincing case for her greatness or entrance you with my music nerd description of her music–this time I’m just gonna ask you to go out and listen to her record while driving around in the grey…