My first exposure to Beth Orton was born out of trying to find an excuse to chat up a cute clerk at my favourite used music store.
“Can you recommend some cool new music?” I said nonchalantly to the clerk after working up some courage, pretending to browse the album racks.
He turned to the wall of new, sealed CDs held behind the counter and said, “Sure, I know the perfect record for you, since you’re always buying female singer-songwriter stuff.” (He remembered what I bought!)
I was handed Beth Orton’s sophomore album, Central Reservation and I fell in love.
With the album, of course.
Orton’s mix of confessional, open-hearted folk songs — many of them mixed with the chilled electronic sounds of the time — quickly touched my Lilith Fair-affected soul.
When I listen to an album for the first time, I scan each track to find potential singles. The most instantly accessible, poppiest track on the album was easily the bonus remix of the title track, produced by Everything But the Girl’s Ben Watt.
“Central Reservation (The Then Again Version)” opens with upbeat synths, bright burbling electronic effects and a dance-oriented bassline, whose mannered production attempts to recall a morning sunrise, which is only fully realized once Orton’s warm vocals kick in.
“Running down a central reservation, in last night’s red dress,” she sings in the opening verse. “And I can still smell you on my fingers and taste you on my breath.”
The way Orton’s vocals linger on “fingers” and “taste you on my breath” invites listeners to recall the intimacy of her night with the same mix of nostalgia and triumph as she does.
Unlike most singles, the call-out hook in “Central Reservation” is really within these first two lines. They’re indelible, an set of vocals that confidently presents Orton’s voice and songwriting potently within the realm of mainstream pop.
After replaying that remix many times, I eventually committed to hearing the entirety of the rest of the record in sequence multiple times (as you did in the pre-streaming era). With repeated plays, I grew to love many of the less-accessible, but arguably superior tracks on the record like “Stars All Seem to Weep,” “Stolen Car,” “Sweetest Decline” and “Couldn’t Cause Me Harm.”
Still, you never forget your first exposure to a new artist, especially one who ends up becoming a vital part of the soundtrack of your life for as many years as Orton did.
While I forgot the name and face of that record store clerk crush after all these years, I remain forever grateful to him for directing me to this truly “cool” artist, album, and song.