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Beth Orton

              CENTRAL RESERVATION (Arista) •  Beth Orton

Not brand new, but new to me. Essential listening. Beth's tunes come from the serious side of folk and pop, but her spin on it is very original, and deeply entertaining. We'll save her bio for an upcoming feature. The first CD, Trailer Park, was the critics' darling, and married neo-folk and trip hop. (Fat drum loops, electronic sounds, but kicked back, trippy.) The press made a big deal about the marriage, it was a cool angle and the record sounded great. And Beth is, well, pretty irresistible. Rangy, fair, endearing smile, bewitching eyes. Indeed. Voted Best Female Vocalist in Britain in '99. Rightly compared to Rickie Lee Jones and Sandy Denny, I hear Phoebe Snow sometimes, too.

There are no less than five producers on Central Reservation. Victor Van Vugt's five are brilliant. Although drum loops and electronics were tastefully ubiquitous and up front on Trailer Park, they are more subdued on this record, and allow room for sterling string players and arrangements that blend immaculately with acoustic piano and guitar, sometimes acoustic bass. The way these elements combine with the electronics and the dirty guitar magic of Ted Barnes (also plays excellent acoustic and bouzouki) is pop at its best. The rhythm section is Will Blanchard on drums and mostly Ali Friend on bass, and one could scarcely ask for more. The keyboard work of Sean Read is first rate. Two ringers make outstanding appearances: Dr. John plays tender, sparse piano, heavenly. And the elegant snarl of Ben Harper's electric guitar lends heat to two tracks like a smoldering psychedelic swirl, bravo.

Although other tracks were produced beautifully by Dr. Robert, Mike Stent, Dave Roback and the artist herself, I especially enjoyed the punchy inventions of Ben Watt from Everything but the Girl, wow. And the artist? Beth Orton is here to stay, or I'm going. Her tunes, her voice, her presence is a gift to serious music lovers and pop junkies alike. I've gone on about the players without any blow by blow description of the tunes. This is the net, after all, and I think that's your job. Please proceed to the Listen page and check out some Beth Orton sound clips.

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