Album of the Week, August 31: Trailer Park by Beth Orton

OrtonTrailerBeth Orton was born in England in 1970. Orphaned by 19, she travelled to Thailand and then took on a number of short-term jobs. She was initially interested in acting, taking classes and traveling with a fringe theatre troupe. She met musician William Orbit and the two began a relationship and musical collaboration. They co-wrote a couple of songs and released a cover of John Martyn’s Don’t Want to Know. Orton recorded the album SuperPinkyMandy which saw only a small Japanese release. She continued working with Orbit and recorded some vocals for Chemical Brothers projects. This musical experience — mostly in the realm of electronica — prompted her to write and record the album that she considers her proper debut. Mixing elements of 70’s era folk and singer-songwriter music with her ethereal vocals and electronica chops resulted in a new breed of music and a uniquely powerful album.

Title Trailer Park
Act Beth Orton
Label Dedicated / Heavenly Release Date October 1996
Producer Victor Van Vugt and Andrew Weatherall
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  68
Tracks
  1. She Cries Your Name
  2. Tangent
  3. Don’t Need A Reason
  4. Live As You Dream
  5. Sugar Boy
  6. Touch Me With Your Love
  7. Whenever
  8. How Far
  9. Someone’s Daughter
  10. I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine
  11. Galaxy of Emptiness

She Cries Your Name is a significant reworking of a track she sang on Orbit’s Strange Cargo Hinterland. Released as Trailer Park‘s only single shortly before the album, it provided a clear look a the bold new territory she was staking out. While the production qualities help it fit into her previous work in electronica, it’s clearly something other. Anchored by anguished cello and violin, the powerful song shows off Orton’s voice to its full extent. With a rapid narrative that eases into a slow, aching chorus, it’s a potent journey of emotion and one of her finest songs.

Tangent revisits more familiar territory, one of three longer (7-minutes plus), trippier numbers. It works well, with nice use of strings and harmonium to tie in the folk threads. Don’t Need A Reason is a charming, poppier number that contributes to the album’s diversity while showing off another side of Orton’s vocals. With Live As You Dream, she explores more upbeat territory. A lovely song of hope and determination, it has a timeless pop quality propelled but a sprightly vocal and a nice organ line.

Sugar Boy is a brilliant kiss-off song, with Orton intoning an almost seductive farewell. Lines that could be spat in anger work disturbingly well when crooned. Touch Me With Your Love is the second long, spacey song, a nicely constructed ode to passion placed perfectly in the overall flow of the songs. Whenever is one of the standouts, a song of beneficial need that features one of Orton’s warmest vocals. The sense of independence that underlies the desire fits nicely with the lyrical and musical complexities of Trailer Park.

How Far is a buoyant song with nicely layered vocals. A tribute to making the most of what life offers, it has more grit than most of the tracks and serves as something of a mission statement. The closest thing to filler is the pleasant but forgettable Someone’s Daughter, which reads a bit like Orton is channelling a more coherent Donovan song. It bounces along nicely, though, and provides another glimpse at the range of her talents.

I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine is on of her rare covers, a flawless reading of a song Phil Spector wrote with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and produced for the Ronettes. Departing from their anguished but energetic wall-of-girl-group approach (which is lovely in its own right), she lays the song bare. It’s one of the sparsest tracks on the album, and features a wonderfully raw vocal. Slow and aching, it makes the title line feel like a true prayer for deliverance from heartbreak. Things wrap up with the last true electronic track, the eerie Galaxy of Emptiness. It’s almost a too-long exercise in trip-hop, but Orton’s surprisingly warm lament of a vocal rescues it. Instead, it serves as a perfect coda to this wonderful work of folktronica.

Musically diverse but consistent, shifting gears without ever jarring the listener, and anchored by Orton’s strong lyrical sense and wonderful vocal work, Trailer Park received several award nominations and announced a major talent. Nearly 20 years on, it’s still a distinctive, wonderful piece of music.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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