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Orton gives lovely voice to banal new folk-pop

Beth Orton
With Willy Mason
At: Avalon, Saturday

Beth Orton made her name fusing acoustic folk with trip-hop, put out a pair of quirky, beloved albums in the '90s, and became a college-rock troubadour for the digital age.

She's one of those exquisitely self-possessed singer-songwriters who can wear an ill-fitting Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and pinned-up braids on stage at Avalon with no loss of credibility. Orton's singing voice is so cracked and gorgeous and emotionally true that even her banal songs -- and there are plenty of them on her new album, ''Comfort of Strangers" -- still sound sort of fascinating.

Orton's 90-minute show for a near-full house on Saturday was an odd blend of riveting and pedestrian. Orton performed the bulk of the new disc, an unremarkable collection of earthy folk-pop from an artist who's capable of wonderfully distinctive craft. In keeping with the tone and tenor of the songs, lengthy stretches of the concert drifted in a midtempo ether. ''Worms" was jaunty. ''Heartland Truckstop" was measured. ''Conceived" was unerringly pleasant, and ''Rectify," which presents love as a one-way train, rolled down the proverbial line. Appropriately, warm keyboards and winsome strumming abounded. There was harmonica and whistling and some awfully pretty violin playing from Nina Violet, sidewoman for opening act Willy Mason.

At times -- as on the lush, expansive ''Shadow of a Doubt" and the bluesy, shuffling ''God Song" -- Orton and her four-piece band evoked the great British rock group Traffic. But just as often they evoked the middling British tunesmith David Gray.

Left to her own devices during an unaccompanied mini-set, Orton dug in. She scratched madly at her guitar strings on ''Feel to Believe," a devastating track from ''Central Reservation." She capped ''Someone's Daughter" (from her 1996 debut ''Trailer Park") with a sad, broken scat. It's as if, without the succor of her bandmates, Orton reached briefly for the complicated heart of a song instead of skittering along the surface.

Success is a double-edged sword for singer-songwriters -- or, more accurately, for their fans. Orton is now playing in big rooms that challenge intimacy. She was, as ever, lovely to listen to, but connections were missed -- owing in part to the setting, but also to the placid nature of the new material.

Martha's Vineyard native Willy Mason, at the ripe age of 21, has cultivated a wizened delivery and demeanor that suits his downbeat originals. Accompanied by a violinist and guitarist (and on one song by his mother, the singer Jemima James), Mason meandered through a set of slow, sturdy folk songs.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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