In my experience, it would seem that people either love Beth Orton’s voice or think she can’t really sing. As that often seems to be the mark of a truly great singer, it seems a shame that so many people will never get anything from her music. I adore all four of her albums and ‘Daybreaker’ from 2002 was unlucky to miss out on a placing in this list. Indeed, as I sit here now, I’m not still not quite sure why it didn’t make it. It’s got a number of wonderful tracks on it, much like ‘Comfort Of Strangers’, although where this 2006 has the edge is in its status as one of those records you have to do from start to finish. It sets a mood, it reels you in and it holds you until the last note of ‘Pieces Of Sky’.
I remember when it first appeared there were all kind of comments about it sounding too lo-fi and people asking if this was the right mix. It sounded too quiet up against modern day, maximised volume masterings and it sounded a bit muddy and raw. For all of those reasons, I adore it. The analogue sound to it all makes it a perfect candidate for a vinyl release and, having to order the US pressing as there was no domestic offering, that remains my favourite way to listen to this one. Needle down, volume right up and sit back for fourteen little delights.
‘Worms’ is one of those songs where the vocals come in first, with relatively minimal musical accompaniment, before the remainder of the band come in together after the first line, led by a neat little drum sound or two. It’s a simple but bloody effective formula and it works a charm here. Singles ‘Conceived’, ‘Heart Of Soul’ and ‘Shopping Trolley’ remain the more traditional Beth offerings to be found on this album, but it really is her ‘folk’ album. The bleeps are out the wind and a rootsy, live sound takes their place.
You suspect that this is the album Beth Orton always wanted to make and it sounds suitably laid back that it conjures the image of a happy studio environment. If someone gave it to me as a rare soul-folk offering that had just been unearthed, similar to Karen Dalton or Judee Sill I’d happily believe them. It’s a quality album that managed to somehow slip under the radar. We’ve heard nothing from her since, though that radio silence may soon be over. Here’s hoping.
The mass outpouring of pleasure that greeted Elbow’s Mercury Music Prize triumph with this album said it all. Plenty of us had loved them for ages but they’d never quite taken off. A Glasto performance as the sun set, a radio-friendly colossus entitled ‘One Day Like This’ and then this helpful sales boost did a fine job of ensuring that Elbow were one of the great success stories of 2008. The only quibble I can have is why it didn’t happen sooner. This album just has the nudge on ‘Asleep In The Back’, their beautiful debut and No.23 in this very list, and their third album, ‘Leaders Of The Free World’, was very unlucky to just miss out on a place in the 40 also. That said, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ was the album where their musical ambition went up a few gears and suddenly they sounded unbeatable.
‘One Day Like This’ is revered by many, and rightly so, but there are many similarly well arranged tracks that are at least its equal on this charming record. Album opener ‘Starlings’ is a lesson in the correct deployment of restraint, while ‘Weather To Fly’ is multi-layered work of genius. Richard Hawley’s appearance on ‘The Fix’ makes for a gem of a track, although one that seems slightly at odds with the rest of the songs. ‘Grounds For Divorce’ was yet another classic Elbow ‘big’ single while ‘An Audience With The Pope’ took on ‘The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver’ for the label of ‘Longest Title Of A Beautiful Song On The Album’ and just lost out.
However, what makes this album truly special to me is a moment that last for all of thirty seconds during ‘Friends Of Ours’, the most direct tribute to the ‘Seldom Seen Kid’ in the album’s title, the band’s friend Bryan Glancy who died in 2006. Around the three minute mark, as the tear-inducingly raw refrain ‘love you mate’ is repeated, a sparse but cascading piano line comes in and it makes you realise why you love music so much. It’s one of those moments that you could hear over and over forever, each listen demonstrating how sometimes music can capture things that words simply cannot.
I’m stood in a venue in Derby that looks a little like it should be used for jumble sales or as a primary school hall waiting to see Richard Hawley. I have a degree of optimism about the support act, Pete Molinari, having briefly loitered on his Myspace page the day before. He sounds unashamedly retro with an interesting voice. I was not blown away and have made no special effort to be there in time for the support set, it just so happens that he is going to be on slightly later than I’d anticipated and so I am able to see his entire performance.
By the end of his first song, I was starting to think that catching the support act wasn’t a bad idea. By the end of his second, I was starting to feel glad that the merchandise stall appeared to have both of his albums for sale and by the time he got round to his sublime cover of ‘Satisfied Mind’ I was welling up. Richard Hawley was suitably splendid afterwards, but I went away from that gig talking about one man only. I’d ended up buying both of his albums on vinyl plus his recent single from the merchandise stall and, when I got the chance to play them the following evening, I began the fairly rapid process of falling in love with this unique voice.
Rather nasal, more than a little rough round the edges and utterly commanding, Molinari’s voice is sensational – once heard, never forgotten. ‘A Virtual Landslide’ is the more professional of his two albums, the first having been recorded at a kitchen table but still worth tracking down. ‘I Came Out Of The Wilderness’ has that early-Dylan feel to it, while ‘Sweet Louise’ is a cracking pop song dressed in clothes from Oxfam. In 1959. But where this album really got me, and still very much continues to do so, was his reading of ‘I Don’t Like The Man I Am’ which had impressed me that night in Derby but which is meticulously and beautifully rendered on this album. It’s a heartbreakingly stark and genuinely moving performance.
(You may remember me banging on about the recorded version of ‘Satisfied Mind’ earlier this year on the blog and, while it doesn’t quite match the heights of the live, solo performance I witnessed that night, it is a pretty special listen. It appeared on an EP that came out earlier this year, ‘Today, Tomorrow And Forever’, and can be heard here.)