By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Zero Zero Zero
Think of Beth Orton as Jewel for the deep-think crowd. Only this performer trades in folk for "funk" and still manages to go nowhere while the world spins around her; she trip-hops over her own feet. Which is too bad, given that Orton's 1997 debut Trailer Park was a rather evocative little record--an English-coffeehouse-gal-opens-for-Portishead kind of thing. But Orton's second full-lengther sounds like Mazzy Star at open-mike night. Is this what a hangover sounds like? Maybe Central Reservation is what Misery puts on the stereo when company arrives.
Not that Orton's an entirely unsatisfying listen--or so I think, having forgotten a week before hearing the record a second time that I'd listened to it once before. The woman's got one of those pretty-not-beautiful voices that makes you think there's a lot of deepdeepdeep going on there. Too bad there isn't. One colleague mentions similarities to Joni Mitchell--until you realize Helen Reddy with a sampler and a Tindersticks fetish is more on point. I am getting so tired of listening to records my mother would buy.
At least Sam Phillips' brand of avant-folk pop is twisted/brilliant enough to maintain a level of interest past the first listen--though the backward-guitar gimmicks do tend to grate when you just want to listen to the song, for god's sake. This best-and-rest-of--which it isn't really, since it has two new sorta-songs and three pointless remixes and one excerpt (!)--vaguely sums up the former Leslie Phillips' post-Christian pop career spent shrugging off the Word. Only it's never as satisfying as any one of Phillips' records swallowed whole. She and husband T-Bone Burnett make albums to be listened to from start to finish; they're big on total vibe, on built-to-last masterpieces that tend to fall apart when you start picking at loose threads. That's why she never got past critical acclaim: Sam Phillips is as much a singles artist as Beth Orton is an interesting songwriter.
The problem with Zero Zero Zero lies with the song selection (what, no "Baby I Can't Please You"?). For two people who put such care and consideration into their records, Phillips and Burnett have managed to render every song as a throwaway. "Holding On to the Earth" was pristine-perfect the first time around; to cover it in mud-thick percussion is to throw garbage on the "Mona Lisa." "Lying" gets similarly roughed up, and worse, the new songs sound like demos--or, more accurately, leftovers. Zero Zero Zero...smells like a contract-killer.