Published May 26, 2016Beth Orton is the best. After studying guitar under the late great Bert Jansch and making the stunning alt-folk record Sugaring Season (2012) with Tucker Martine, she's surprised everyone yet again by turning her sultry voice and razor sharp intuition in a whole new direction, building Kidsticks off beats and keyboard loops she created in a Californian backyard with Fuck Buttons' Andrew Hung.
Channelling some of Orton's high school heroes (Kate Bush, Talking Heads, Plastic Letters-era Blondie), Kidsticks is akin to visiting a mellow, experimental dance club with a time-traveling ethereal poet; kinda punk rock, idiosyncratic and organic even as it's awash in keyboards.
Kidsticks touches on love, distance, loss, dissolution, profound grief (on "Petals," which begins in simulated stillness and ends explosively), tender motherhood (the spoken "Corduroy Legs") and fiction ("1973" is an anachronistic, giddy dance track imagining an alternate life in the '70s).
Orton and Hung's loops are bolstered by live musicians playing organic instruments — folks like pianist Dustin O'Halloran, who also did the string arrangements, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and other studio musicians. And Orton's never afraid to let the mystery be a mystery: "I listen to the grass grow / And I wonder what I don't know," she sings on "Moon," in a wonderful wide-awake-at-night rave state.
"Flesh and Blood," the penultimate track, bursts open. Its delicate climbing melody speaks to optimism, newness, "life after life" and "a little feel in the dark / for the beautiful spark." We've wandered out of that dark, experimental dance club we were in and are hearing dawn breaking in Orton's beautiful voice again. (Anti)