Comfort of Strangers

Beth Orton, reigning queen of soft, dark, folked-out trip-hop, floats back down to Earth from the helium-fueled 1996 Trailer Park with her fifth release, Comfort of Strangers. Along her graceful descent, she pops a handful of Fiona Apple’s antidepressants, has a bitch session with Alanis Morissette and gathers shreds of influence from spaghetti-Western horse-trot beats. Through all these forays, she never stops sounding like Beth Orton. She solos through stylistic switchbacks on guitar, piano or harmonica, appropriating the layering techniques of electronica in the service of just-this-side-of-straightforward alterna-rock. Even at its most acoustically spare, the album is a lavishly produced compendium: equal parts saddle-weary road songs, two-packs-a-day breakup music and sweet, Sunday chill-out.