Orton Hears a Who

Singer-songwriter Beth Orton has many sides, and she likes them all.

Her endorsement of the country whose aesthetic she has so embraced is not without exception. For instance, she found Los Angeles unfathomable. "I didn't quite get it," she concedes. "The lifestyle--what life is it? I couldn't quite see how people would spend their days, what they do, where they are, where they have all gone..." But she was fascinated by residents of a Mojave Desert mobile-home colony she visited. They regaled her with intimate tales that reminded her of her lyrics, which balance general despair with doses of optimism and resolve. As she acknowledges, "I've been very honest in my music. Very real. And part of that was because I wanted to be. I wanted to be real. I wanted to be me and express these feelings that I had. I just think truth is more interesting than fiction."

In this regard, she shares much with many of the artists touring as part of the Lillith Fair, a festival dominated by this year's bumper crop of earnest young female singer-songwriters. Orton has appeared on a number of Lillith stops, and while her music might initially seem too electronically enhanced for such an acoustic-oriented showcase, her live sound is not all that dissimilar from those associated with entertainers such as Sarah McLachlan and Jewel. Critics may prefer the Orton compositions that marry folk to smoky dance effects over her more straightforward turns. But whether they like it or not, Orton is slowly moving toward the road most traveled, a path made flat and smooth by a great many of Orton's Lillith peers.

Why? Because, Orton claims, it is difficult to effectively translate prerecorded sounds to the concert format. "When we play live, the atmosphere of the album is expressed sort of acoustically," she explains. "There's drums and electric guitar, but there aren't samplers, and there really isn't anything digital on stage. So therefore, I have bid towards that live and have gone away from anything electronic. But I'm going to leave myself open to change. It's like, if I get a record I really like, I'll play it and play it and play it and get kind of obsessive about it. But then a month or two down the line, I might get a totally different record and get obsessed about that. I suppose I see my own music the same way."

An example of this phenomenon is Orton's now-waning romance with strings. She became enamored of their sweet scrapings after meeting several players with the group Tindersticks. Her producer, Victor Van Vught (himself a onetime Tindersticks associate), subsequently encouraged Orton to borrow the bow-wielders for her own recording. "I was kind of wary, because I didn't want it to just get drowned out in string chaos," she confesses. "But it seemed right, and then it just sort of grew--like, 'Oh, wouldn't it be nice to have one there? Yeah, and wouldn't it be nice there?'" By the time Trailer Park was complete, many of the songs featured violins gliding around each other like swans engaged in a mating dance. But Orton found that some of the more orchestrated ditties did not hold up on stage. "Some songs have their time and their place, and then suddenly they don't work live, whereas they worked last week. They just suddenly go boomp, and you're like, 'Oh, it doesn't work anymore.'" The reason, she believes, is that "the strings had started to play too much on it. It's like if you were painting, you wouldn't just add green--a really dark green--to everything. You have to be aware of that."

To be able to spend her time making such discoveries is a tremendous luxury for Orton. Before she left acting and took up music, she was struggling to get off the dole. "It pulled me out of a lot of weird situations, actually," she says of her career shift. "It really turned my life around. I think music does that. It's a really positive, powerful force in that respect. It can just take the wrongs and makes them right, kind of. It gives you something to live for, and therefore, you want to find the good in things. Just do it right, because you've been given the chance, the opportunity to do some good. To do something that's really interesting and really satisfying as well."

Ben Harper, Beth Orton, Matthew Ryan and Dan Bern. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, August 16, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $22.50, 443-3399. Beth Orton. 9 p.m. Sunday, August 17, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $5, 322-2308.

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