Beth Orton, Hem

You wouldn't know it from her increasingly pleasant albums, but Beth Orton is one hell of a risk-taker. Her new Daybreaker swings so close to the kind of icky New Age treacle you only hear in dentists' offices that it's hard to believe it's actually pretty close to what she's been telling interviewers she was aiming for: a "daybreak" album along the lines of Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis or midperiod stuff by Everything But the Girl. Orton's slightly parched voice and her attractively imprecise songwriting have always been more suited to that kind of thing than the "future folk" concept she's been saddled with since her 1996 debut, Trailer Park, so it's nice to hear her give herself over to the idea completely--even the title track, which her old buddies the Chemical Brothers co-produced, is more fog than funk, and the album's highlight is its straightforward lead single, "Concrete Sky," which features harmony vocals from Mr. MOR himself, Ryan Adams. Openers Hem gave their new album a similarly instructive title, and the lushly pastoral Rabbit Songs is as nice a surprise from this Brooklyn-based band as Orton's increasingly convincing folk-pop. Both acts have their work cut out for them in reproducing their albums' complicated arrangements onstage, but the songs are there. Expect good things.


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