Out There

Shined to a dull finish

Central Reservation
Beth Orton

Zero Zero Zero
Sam Phillips
Virgin Records

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.

--Robert Wilonsky


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