[The Mail On Sunday, 2006]
AMID A SWELLING crowd of guitar-toting folkie girls, Beth Orton until now stood out mainly by virtue of having got there early. Her fourth album, Comfort Of Strangers (EMI **** ), changes that. True, her earlier records displayed brief flashes of excellence, and brought her an enthusiastic following; but it's this confident set which at last finds Orton growing into her rickety contralto and gawky tomboy persona.
Her songs have that lived-in quality which distinguishes the distaff bards of the 1970s (there are stronger echoes here of Melanie Safka and Phoebe Snow than of the more obvious Joni Mitchell) from their all-too-winsome modern successors. Orton manages to convey the sense of a life tasted in astringent draughts, rather than one preciously inscribed into a diary.
Notably, considering her pre-solo career as the vocalist of choice for William Orbit and The Chemical Brothers, Comfort of Strangers is devoid of any lingering electronic touches. It doesn't need them. It's common enough nowadays to hear albums that could have been made thirty years ago; less so to hear one which might have kept its reputation that long.
The coherence of Orton's album stands in substantial contrast to a pair of flimsier but intermittently intriguing records. From A Compound Eye (Must Destroy *** ) is billed as the first solo effort from Robert Pollard (although, as Pollard was to Guided By Voices what Mark E Smith is to The Fall, that's a touch disingenuous.) 70 minutes; 26 songs delving into every cranny of American guitar pop; some of them thrilling, others forgettable - it's business as usual for the restless and relentlessly creative Pollard.
Another soloist debutant picking up where he left off, ex-Gorky's Zygotic Mynci man Euros Childs still calls to mind Super Furry Animals minus the techno and the fuzzboxes. Which basically leaves a neatly trimmed take on the pastoral psychedelia once associated with the Harvest label and The Incredible String Band. Chops (Wichita** ) could be irksome if approached in the wrong frame of mind. It suggests a children's record gone loopy. But it does have a certain Magic Roundabout charm, in small doses - which, happily, are the only sort it provides.
Chops had better scuttle off before it's crushed underfoot by an ironclad monster of a rap album with testosterone and adrenalin fighting a deathmatch for control of its veins. That David Banner's name should trigger thoughts of The Hulk is fitting. Banner is either angry, or lecherous, or both. And to such an insane degree that, when you see the title of Certified (Island *** ), you might wonder if he shouldn't be. This record is so eye-poppingly belligerent and so heroically filthy that it could be a South Park parody of itself. But that's what sets it apart from the usual rap slaverings and threats - that and the fulminating brio with Banner tackles the whole absurd business.
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