After 2002's somber and overdone Daybreaker, it seemed possible that Beth Orton was losing the focus and freshness that made her so compelling on Trailer Park and Central Reservation. How nice, then, it is to hear those qualities in abundance on Comfort of Strangers, which Orton recorded in just two weeks with producer Jim O'Rourke and percussionist Tim Barnes. She was moved to work with O'Rourke after hearing his eloquently simple Halfway to a Threeway EP, and the folky-yet-sophisticated sound of that release and Insignificance serves as the template for this album, particularly on the slightly twangy "Countenance," which showcases Barnes' subtle, intricately shifting rhythms. Likewise, the melding of acoustic and electric guitars and piano on "Heartlandtruckstop" also sounds quintessentially O'Rourke. Of course, Orton's gorgeous voice and thoughtful lyrics are the stars of Comfort of Strangers, but O'Rourke's work is arguably as much of a draw as Orton's return is. The title track's intriguing mix of programmed and acoustic percussion, marimba, organ, and piano and "Conceived"'s muted electronics nod to both artists' wide-ranging tastes and influences. Though this album is one of Orton's simplest when it comes to sonics, it's still quirky and full of personality. It's also surprisingly concise; some songs, like the uncannily Fiona Apple-esque opener, "Worms," feel like barely more than sketches, but that's precisely what's so appealing about them. Without an overcooked, heavily polished production weighing them down, it's all the easier to connect with Orton's voice and words, particularly on the quietly strong "Shadow of a Doubt," which, like many of her best songs, radiates a unique sense of hope. Indeed, Comfort of Strangers is a happier -- or at least more hopeful -- work than Daybreaker, even on its most poignant tracks. The feeling of sunlight breaking through the clouds recurs throughout the album, whether it's hearing "Feral"'s beautifully smoky folk blossom into something bigger and sweeter, or how "Shopping Trolley"'s incandescent guitars and propulsive drumming make the song even more buoyant. Even "Safe in Your Arms," one of a small handful of true ballads on the album, moves from bittersweet to uplifting without being overly sentimental. One of the comforts of strangers is the fresh start that they offer. This album could be seen as a fresh start for Beth Orton, and she makes the most of it: as artlessly lovely as a spring day, this is some of her simplest work, and simply some of her best, too.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares