Note: NPR’s First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
Between her 1996 breakthrough Trailer Park and 2012’s Sugaring Season, Beth Orton embarked on a steady but slow-moving transition from her signature “folktronica” sound to styles rooted in far more traditional rock instrumentation. Beats and samples gave way to more guitars and strings, to the point where Orton’s appearance at the Tiny Desk in 2012 found her showcasing new material with the aid of only an acoustic guitar.
Nearly four years later, with Orton’s career now in its third decade, she returns with Kidsticks, on which she employs an arsenal of subtle but ever-present technology. The new record never feels like a retreat into the familiar; instead, it finds her marrying her gorgeously lived-in voice to a palette expansive enough to incorporate quietly throbbing pulses and whiz-bang futurism. (In the case of the mysterious, sonically cluttered, oddly peaceful “Corduroy Legs,” she makes room for both and then some.)
Appropriately, Kidsticks often revolves around themes of searching and identity. In “Snow,” Orton opens the record with the words, “I’ll astrally project myself into the life of someone else,” while “Moon” finds her losing sleep over the machinations of heavenly bodies. But even her most grandiose thoughts take her back to human concerns — “The same moon rises over me as you,” she sings — in songs that sound like conflicted dispatches from a familiar friend.
Sugaring Season demonstrated both the sturdiness of Orton’s craft and the degree to which her songs thrive when stripped to their beat-free essence. Having proven herself, she seems liberated on Kidsticks, an album that functions as both yearning journey and well-earned victory lap.