By: Eric Greenwood
Beth Orton has one of those rare voices that just educes sadness no matter what it's actually saying. It's her best weapon by far, especially since she proves on her third solo album that her songwriting chops could use some overhauling. Daybreaker begins promisingly enough, though, with the string-laden "Paris Train", wherein Orton pushes her voice over a swell of bombastic atmospherics. Her voice is coy as it glides across the acoustic plucking. When she sings at low volumes her voice cracks and sounds vulnerable, but when she tightens up her power can be overwhelming. The chorus soars over the billowing strings. Trumpet and glacial keyboards add to the dramatic setting. It's an exultant start, assuring good things to come, but it's a red herring.
The duet with Ryan Adams on the first single, "Concrete Sky", is a passable only as a nearly forgotten memory. The melody is so subtle that it barely registers with the ear. Only after multiple listens does it start to become familiar. Orton seems to be embracing the humdrum, schlocky sound of New Age crooners and adult contemporary mush like Dido. The production is so stifled and clean. Her folk roots are nowhere to be found, save in her emotive voice. Adams isn't high enough in the mix to be effective, so his presence is in name only. By the laborious "Mount Washington", it's clear that Orton has lost her focus. It's a squishy, electronic mess. The way she fused folk and electronic pop in the past sounded fresh and inventive, but now that it's become de rigueur, it sounds dated and forced.
The most shocking aspect of Daybreaker is how unbelievably boring it is. There's no tension or excitement past the first track. Orton just floats across these mediocre arrangements without any conviction whatsoever. The strangely funky "Anywhere" sounds like a late-1980's outtake from one hit wonders, Johnny Hates Jazz. You have no clue what I'm talking about? Well, suffice it to say it's not a compliment. The title track tries desperately to jerk the album out of its self-induced coma with a little Sade influence creeping into the mix. Orton is out of her element when she tries to wear the dark, seductive pop cape, and it's a tad embarrassing. Orton comes out of her hazy trance and actually sings into the microphone on the folksy "Carmella", but I'm afraid it's too little too late.
Bringing Emmy Lou Harris aboard the country-tinged "God Song" is a step in the right direction. The dour mood loses some of its punch, though, since every single song preceding it barely had a pulse to begin with. Taken out of context and on its own merit, though, "God Song" rises to the top of Orton's heap in terms of songwriting and emotional connection. She needs that stark openness to be convincing. When she surrounds herself with too much instrumentation and production it obscures her talent. The bleakness of "This One's Gonna Bruise" proves my point exactly. The latent strings notwithstanding, Orton is alone with an acoustic guitar and she commands your attention. She just seems to come alive when there's nothing to hide behind.
It's obvious that Orton wanted a consistent tone for Daybreaker, and in that regard she succeeded. However, it's no coincidence that her most "adult" work is also her most disappointing. This album will undoubtedly cast a wider net in terms of audience because it's more streamlined, more commercial, despite the brain-numbing lengths of the songs, but it will not keep her long-time fans on board much longer. It's uncanny how telling the artwork is. Orton stares blankly through a gauzy light into nothingness. And Daybreaker feels just exactly like that. Thank God this CD is "carbon neutral" because we wouldn't want it to bore us AND contribute to global warming too. At least Orton had her environment in mind, if not her fans.