A good half decade before there was “folktronica” and “laptop folk,” there was Beth Orton, the British songwriter whose albums Trailer Park (1996) and Central Reservation (1998) showed you how to buoy your earthy folk rock with electro beats and textures, or, alternatively, how to dress your electro beats for radio play. The narrow dynamic boundaries of those influential albums were set by Orton’s singing style: a dry, appealingly offhand delivery that was a natural match for the half-occluded sensuality of her lyrics and their traces of eastern spiritualism.
In 2006, Orton resurfaced with the Jim O’Rourke-produced Comfort of Strangers, losing the electrodes entirely in favor of a hushed, organic full-band sound. That album also marked Orton’s significant growth as a melody writer. Those ‘90s albums for which she will be known leaned heavily on stock folk-blues articulations for their melodies. The Beth Orton of the aughts knocks out casual and keen hooks with ease. See, this is why we are rewarded when we stick with artists after their “moment of mattering” has passed.
Always in Orton, one hears a certain ambivalence, a non-committal nonchalance, as if she has never really decided that writing and singing is something she wants to be doing. On her latest “comeback,” 2012’s Sugaring Season, Orton sounds decidedly more animated and committed, which may be a good thing, depending on how you felt about the more tentative and distracted old Beth Orton.
The new album also effectively bridges the groove-centrism of her early electro-folk records with the real instruments and real players of Comfort of Strangers. Sugaring Season sports a dense, detailed acoustic ambiance augmented cautiously with dabs of electronics, electric guitars, string sections, layered background vocals and the full complement of modern indie pop widgets. It’s another striking effort from an artist who — like all the mature and self-reflective ones — knows that she has to figure it all out anew each time out.
Beth Orton with Dawn Landes, Saturday August 3, 9:00 PM, $45/$35/$25; Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker St., Woodstock, NY. (845) 679-4406, https://www.bearsvilletheater.com.