If only Beth Orton's new album had been released before Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine and after Cat Power's The Greatest, the continuum of strong-but-melancholy modern female songwriters would have remained perfectly linear. Comfort Of Strangers, delivered last in that sequence, makes perfect sense between Apple's bold pop reaches and Chan Marshall's deep wistfulness. It doesn't reach the former's sonic heights or the latter's mournful lows—and isn't, overall, as tip-top a set as either—but it does live in the same blissfully talented neighborhood. Location, location, location, as they say.
Initially (and rightfully) pegged as the go-to voice for lulling electronic folk, Orton shone first via The Chemical Brothers' "Alive Alone," then broke through with 1996's Trailer Park, a stunning debut that bridged genres so fluidly that it essentially created a new one. But since then, Orton has casually wandered away from inorganic influences; with Comfort Of Strangers, produced by Wilco/Sonic Youth adjunct and post-rock/avant/whatever kingpin Jim O'Rourke, she eschews bloops and computerized swooshes in favor of more organic melancholy. Unlike her last album, 2002's too-moody Daybreaker, this one dilutes the downers with moments of joy: "I know I'm gonna cry," she sings, "but I'm gonna laugh about it all in time."
The bouncy opening track, "Worms," serves as a statement of purpose with its Apple-like tone and cadence: Even as it examines the low-lows, Comfort won't be bogged down in them. "Countenance" and "Shadow Of A Doubt" chug along on unobtrusive guitars, the latter building up a head of steam that suits Orton's engaging voice remarkably well. And when juxtaposed with a little more energy, the songs in which Orton crawls and moans sound even better: Three excellent mid-album tracks ("Absinthe," "A Place Aside," and "Safe In Your Arms") anchor the set with misty melancholy, and they punch harder as a lead-in to "Shopping Trolley," Comfort's shining moment. Orton trips briefly afterward—Comfort would've been stronger without the too-soulful "Heart Of Soul" and the too-sad "Feral Children"—but only in the quest for balance, which she almost always maintains.