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Review: Beth Orton, 'Kidsticks'

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.

Beth Orton, <em>Kidsticks</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Beth Orton, Kidsticks

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.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)