In theory, seeing Jim O’Rourke’s producer credit on a pop album should set off some red flags. After all, this is the guy that has his name on countless experimental ambient and noise records, was once a member of Gastr Del Sol, included obscene pictures of little fat men on his solo albums and played some part in pushing Wilco away from alt-country and into Radiohead-rivaling art rock. But one shouldn’t be too presumptuous about what O’Rourke might do to a Beth Orton album. After all, his presence on Superchunk and Stereolab records only served to make each band sound prettier. And Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wasn’t so much weird as it was more open and expansive. With that in mind, Comfort of Strangers, Orton’s new O’Rourke produced album should only be a little more orchestrated, somewhat more lush and ornamental. And, for the most part, that’s exactly what it is.
In the past, Orton was known for her electro-tinged, NPR-approved pop, which began more or less around 1995, when she first appeared on The Chemical Brothers’ Exit Planet Dust, and peaked with her stunning Central Reservation album. On Comfort of Strangers, nothing drastic has changed, but upon closer examination, there are a few key clues that indicate how O’Rourke influenced the shape of these recordings. The bouncy piano on “Worms” and the breezy acoustic melody of “Rectify” sound as if they were plucked straight from Insignificance or Eureka.
Even with such a strong showing by Chicago Jim, his touches here are mostly ornamental and only enhance Orton’s songs, which are bound by lovely melodies and emotional, yet clever lyrical delivery. At just over two minutes, “Worms” marks an instant high for the record, as Orton mixes cynicism toward relationships with Biblical humor:
I’m your apple eating heathen
day old rib stealing Eve
well you don’t have my faith
so best keep your belief
I had waited forever to love someone
I swear I heard you thank your God that time for having me come along
“Heartland Truckstop” has a rolling, rootsy sound, with lyrics that reference “Sweet Jane” (“I wanted to love/then I turned `round and hated it“), while “Shadow of A Doubt,” simple as it is, has one of the album’s catchiest choruses, second, possibly, only to “Conceived,” a breezy, steady little tune that finds Orton chirping “Some of the time the future comes `round to haunt me.” I find myself singing that line over and over again, daily, at this point, so it, of course, is the catchiest chorus on the album.
Beth Orton hasn’t changed identities, reinvented herself or attempted to alienate her label on Comfort of Strangers. Instead, she has continued to do what she does best: make beautiful, often quiet, and always memorable folk-pop. Only this time, she’s done so with the aid of a guy who has been on Merzbow albums. If that isn’t quite so obvious on Comfort, it only goes to prove his worth as a producer, bringing out the best in Beth, rather than making it sound like another of his pet projects.
Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man – Out of Season
New Buffalo – The Last Beautiful Day
Jim O’Rourke – Eureka
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.