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Beth Orton's Sugaring: Something more beautiful

3.5 out of 4 stars

Sugaring Season
Beth Orton

When Beth Orton released her last album in 2006, Laura Marling was just 16 years old. Since that time, the indie-folk darling Marling grew up and released three albums. Orton, at 41 old enough to be Marling's mum, has grown up as well: In the last six years the British warbler as had two children, contemplated chucking the music-career thing, engaged in therapy, was released from her record label, lived as a single mother in a former cow barn, decided not to write a novel and took guitar lessons from her hero Bert Jansch, the Scottish folkie.

Jansch is recently dead. Marling is now a fair-haired star. And Orton is making music once again.

"I'm hanging on like the last leaves of autumn, but I'm coming through like the first shoots of spring," she sings on Last Leaves of Autumn, a spare piano ballad in the style of the solemnest possible Carole King. "I'm standing outside of space and time, and I'm healing – believing."

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The song is part of Sugaring Season, an unerring album about bone-resting, rising sap, first-time feelings and awakenings from the "sleeping season." There's a fragility to her voice, and the material is gently presented. But it is fierce and bright in its own way.

Some of you will be closing up cottages soon (if not already); this is the soundtrack to an October weekend of sweaters, cider and last suns for a while.

Orton, 2012 version, isn't doing much with the electronica tweaks to her folk music any more. Magpie has an ornate sort of rusticity, with Brian Blades settling into a limber groove and a light acoustic sparkle happening from a guitar strung Nashville-style. The breezier Dawn Chorus uses an harmonium to warm, snug effect.

The phrasing of Something More Beautiful in the verses reminds me of Joe Henry and his kind of poetic country soul. "You want to learn the trick to turn what's not so pretty into something more beautiful," sings Orton, her voice high and not too shaky.

Call Me The Breeze has a sweet shuffle to it, with a Wurlitzer for colour. Sam Amidon adds a lovely bit of harmony vocals on Poison Tree, a softly compelling arrangement of a poem by William Blake.

The albums finishes with Mystery, with Orton as the tender siren: "Alive, alive, alive, alive/alive, alive, alive-o." A fiddle moves slowly over a faint acoustic picking, and the song closes on that gentle high. The album ends, until you press repeat.

It starts again.

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ROOTS: Brother Sinner & the Whale

  • Kelly Joe Phelps
  • Black Hen
  • Three and a half stars

This is affecting rural music, from the gifted acoustic guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps, who trades in his lap slide for fluid finger-picking and nimble bottle-necking as he abandons straight country-blues for spiritual concerns. This isn't about choosing sides, though: Phelps makes like the late Chris Whitley on the spy, soulful Talking to Jehovah; the gently-done Sometimes a Drifter searches for joy. We all wander and wonder, with saviour taking the forms that we need. Phelps sings of a "glorious home in the air," and that real estate is universal. Brad Wheeler

BLUES: La Futura

  • ZZ Top
  • Universal
  • Two and a half stars

They didn't have to do what they did, but they did, and we thank them. In the early 1970s, ZZ Top, those snake-skinned, Tush-seeking Texans, furthered the American arts form we know as the blues. They were boogie, they were bad, they were nationwide. A lifetime later, with the reclaiming producer Rick Rubin at the controls, the trio makes a record that harks back to the band's biggest, best days. Nods to old lyrics are made with winks. Grungy, nickel-plated riffs are recycled shamelessly. Other than the dynamite drone-and-groan lead track I Gotsa Get Paid, nothing seems so futura. These badasses are devouring themselves whole, beards tickling as they grin and swallow. B.W.

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DANCE: >album title goes here<

  • Deadmau5
  • Mau5trap
  • Four stars

No, >success< goes here. After more than a decade honing his persona and building buzz, Niagara Falls native Joel Zimmerman has the goods to take electronic dance music mainstream, and by that I mean songwriting. Sure, the beats are relentless and the synths pull like a riptide, but it's the melodies that linger. >album< maintains an impressively wide palette, flirting with stadium rock on Professional Griefers, offering with The Veldt, and delivering Daft Punk-style delirium in Maths. But the best bits are surprisingly subtle, as with Closer, a lovely bit of theme and variations based on the five note "signal" from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.– J.D. Considine

JAZZ: Rewind

  • Elizabeth Shepherd
  • Linus
  • Three and a half stars

Recorded during her pregnancy and consisting of songs that have truly meant something to her, Rewind is easily the most personal of Shepherd's albums. Even so, the quality that most defines these performances is collaboration, as when her singing and Reg Schwager's guitar are so tightly intertwined in Poinciana you'd almost think she'd accompanied herself. From the insouciant swing of Midnight Sun to the Gallic cool of Pourquoi tu vis, Shepherd's singing is loose yet confident, riding the groove while adding to it, and the spooked intensity she brings to Buzzard Song (from Porgy and Bess) makes it hard to hear that song the same way again. J.D.C.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More


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