What is known as the Sugaring Season runs in the US state of Vermont from around March to mid-April. It is when producers all around the state collect maple sap and boil it down to the sweet sticky syrup. It is the same maple trees that lead to that stunning sweep of colour in the vibrant fall foliage. Beth Orton's new album seems to combines both events. It is very much a hymn to Autumnal and pastoral moods but combined with a lovely bruised fragility which makes this album such a real treat.
Gone is all the shimmering electronica and digital files of the dallainces with Andy Weatherall or the Chemical Brothers, indeed the template is much more in tune with her frequent collaborations with Ryan Adams. Following a lengthy hiatus to bring up her daughter this is her first album in six years that firmly sticks to the acoustic knitting and is all the better for it. In that time she built up a considerable backlog of songs and in the selections here has largely chosen wisely. Opener "Magpie" has a bluesy tint to the essential folk based melancholy. It builds to a big finish as Orton's vocals stretch and the intensity ratchets up. More gentle are the following tracks, the lifting pop of "Dawn chorus" and the almost Nick Drake sounding guitar backdrop to "Candles" where Orton's haunting vocals are at their very best. The slow piano ballad laden with violins "Something more beautiful" is an undoubted highlight and will replay repeated listens. One sour note comes in the form of the Weimar cabaret of "See Through Blue" where she tries to adopt a Dietrich style loftiness but it all feels rather contrived and breaks the flow of the album. Still it comes in under two minutes and is followed by "Last leaves of Autumn" which is one of the best things Beth Orton has ever done. This reviewers favourite however is the lovely closing track "Mystery" a wonderful haunting ballad that echoes the song writing skills of the great Sandy Denny. Orton's chalky voice has never been better employed and as it gently fades out you touch the repeat button and listen in rapture once more. For those wanting more you will wish to note that the deluxe edition also contains three extra tracks namely covers of "That Summer Feeling" by Jonathan Richman, a nice take on the Carole King standard "I Wasn't Born To Follow" made famous by the Byrds and a haunting version of Neil Young's "Goin Back" from the "Comes a time" album.
Orton has admitted in interviews that it was listening to Joni Mitchell's seminal album "Blue" that provided her musical coming of age. It has served her well since "Sugaring Season" has echoes of Mitchell, Sandy Denny, Cat Power and a host of others. There is nothing revolutionary or radical about this album but it makes up for this with moving honesty and fine melodies. More than that after six long years it signals a return to form by an artist who has built up an admirable and deserved reputation as a top notch songwriter with an album which will be ranked amongst her best. Its good to have her back.