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It has always seemed contradictory when an artist approaches folk music in a modern fashion. When the key elements of a genre that prides itself in traditionalism are redefined by a musician, the question arises of whether or not their music is even folk at all. However, artists have proven time and time again that folk music is perhaps the most malleable of American genres. In 1965 Bob Dylan plugged his guitar into an amp, and thirty years later, Beth Orton plugged hers into a computer. Where as artists like Four Tet and Caribou take traditional “folk” sounds and use them to create electronic music, Orton has always been on the other side of the spectrum of “folktronica”, taking electronic sounds to make folk music. However, on her newest album Sugaring Season, Orton takes a significantly more simplistic and “folksy” approach. The results are a crisp and refreshingly accessible album that has arrived right in time for the dawn of autumn.
The album’s opener, “Magpie”, shoves just about everything one can expect from the album all into one song. The bold and emotive vocals paired with the orchestral string arrangements create a rich and dense sound with a fluidity one could swim through. The drums on the track are awkward yet strangely rhythmic, leading one to believe that Orton cannot help but spill some influence from her electronica days on all of her work. Orton continues this use of surprising percussive sections on “Something More Beautiful”, where she matches jazzy brushed snares with dramatic string hits to create a tense and chilling atmosphere.
Orton keeps the listener on their toes by subtly introducing instrumental variety throughout the album. She expands the album’s musical palate with the lackadaisical accordion whining in the background of “Dawn Chorus”, and the throwback sound of the Hammond organ solo in “Call Me The Breeze”. One thing that persists throughout the entire album, however, is the painfully infectious and melodic vocal melodies, making each track instantly appealing and addictive. Orton demonstrates her vocal dexterity and lyrical creativity on the track “Candles” where she sings, “I’ll blow that moon out just like a candle/I’ll conduct the spheres to move at certain angles/ I heard if you forget yourself/That’s when you meet yourself”. Her interesting imagery and thought-provoking lyricism is just as unsettling as the music that backs it.
On the more traditionally folk track “Call Me the Breeze”, Orton takes a typically endearingly clumsy sound and refines it into to something elegant and ethereal. This seems to be a thematic trend in the album, which is exceptionally evident in the track “Poison Tree”. On the track, Orton juxtaposes earthy bass and guitar with the transcendental sounds of orchestral strings and heavenly vocals, reminiscent of Van Morrison’s landmark folk album Astral Weeks.
Orton initiates the communion between the natural world we ignore and the supernatural world of which we obsess over. And with Sugaring Season, she reminds us the beauty of their coexistence. With lyrics like “I’m standing outside of space and time”, directly following beautiful imagery of fall on “Last Leaves of Autumn” its hard to ignore Orton’s introspective thematic goals.
If there is any consistent trend in Orton’s discography, it is her exploration of the power of folk. Initially experimenting with sound and electronics early in her career, Orton has displayed maturity and growth as an artist on Sugaring Season by delving into more thought provoking territory; how folk music can soundtrack the human experience.