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Communication Breakdown

 

Beth Orton: Daybreaker

Astralwerks, 2002

Rating: 3.3

 

 

Posted: August 8, 2002

By Laurence Station

"Never cry more tears than you could hold in your hands" sings Beth Orton on "Paris Train," the opening track from Daybreaker, her third full-length album. Tellingly, the line encapsulates the emotional reserve running throughout the release. Like a person afraid of commitment for fear of falling in too deep, Orton resists obligating herself, emotionally or artistically, and the record suffers markedly because of it.

Where her earlier efforts were wildly unpredictable and lacked an overriding thematic cohesion, Daybreaker reflects a newfound maturity in Orton's approach to her material. The problem is that the material doesn't invigorate nearly as forcefully as what came before it. 1996's Trailer Park, with its trip-hop flourishes and cosmically flavored lyrics ("Galaxy of Emptiness" remains one of Orton's standout tracks), worked primarily because of its brazen musical inventiveness. Orton wasn't exactly transcribing her personal diary to tape, yet the record worked just fine without such emotional insights. Her brilliant 1999 follow-up, Central Reservation, moved away from the electronic knob-fiddling toward a more personal, pared-down folk-blues style that brought with it a welcome lyrical depth. "Pass in Time," which dealt with the death of Orton's mother, remains the highpoint of her budding catalogue.

With Daybreaker, the transformation from ambient-influenced folk experimentalist to full-blown adult contemporary artist is complete. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but with the music taking a noticeable backseat to the lyrics, Daybreaker essentially places all of its creative eggs in one basket. And far too many of those eggs regrettably turn up broken.

After the promising start of the aforementioned "Paris Train," with its swelling strings and evocation of daydreaming during a lazy, prolonged journey, "Concrete Sky" changes course. Peppy and quite listenable, it's also a marginal, instantly forgettable kiss-and-make-up affair, complete with a guest vocal turn from Ryan Adams. Providing the video's up to par, it should play quite well on VH1. "Mount Washington," meanwhile, is more murky than mystical, despite references to Mount Zion and St. Jude Street and clumsy lyrics like "be a star, be an altar." Still, it effectively conveys a sense of aching isolation and disconnection that resurfaces repeatedly throughout the album. Musically, "Anywhere" possesses nice trumpet and bass arrangement, courtesy of Jon Birdsong, while the title track benefits from Scott Minor's programming, with a persistent beat that supports the wounded, yet positive lyrics.

After a mostly bland first half, Daybreaker's back end proves its saving grace. The stripped-down, acoustic "Carmella" adds much needed variety to the overall sound, while "God Song," performed with Adams and Emmylou Harris, offers a nice mediation on guilt and redemption. But the peak moment proves the Adams-penned "This One's Gonna Bruise," wherein Orton lets down her guard ever so briefly, giving voice to a naked vulnerability and tormented anguish born of a broken relationship torn beyond repair.

Daybreaker is unquestionably a beautiful record, easily Orton's most gorgeously accessible. But its too-well-executed sense of detachment, lack of sonic risk taking and a persistent lyrical flatness dampen its replayability quotient to near sub-decibel levels. This one's gonna bruise, indeed.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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