Lost Singles: Beth Orton “Best Bit EP”

best bit

Best Bit
Released December 1, 1997
Heavenly Records 72
Formats: 12″ EP, CD Single

Best Bit was Beth Orton’s first release of all-new material following the release of Trailer Park, her breakthrough 1996 debut. While that album highlighted Orton as a masterful blender of warm, earthy folk tones and colder electronica, this four-song EP finds her eschewing those elements and going for a straight up country/folk sound.

As follow-ups go, Best Bit was a well-programmed, well-considered release. The record has two parts, if you will; two songs are original Orton numbers, while the other two songs are covers.

“Best Bit” is a catchy tune with Orton getting a bit funky.It is a remake of a b-side found on the single, “Sky Cries Your Name.” This version is rearranged and rerecorded–and a good thing, too, as this take is vastly superior to the b-side version. Here, Orton’s singing is impassioned, and one can’t help being reminded of the powerful singing style of legendary pop-country recluse Bobbie Gentry. Produced by Youth, it’s hardly surprising that this song was a chart hit, peaking at #36.

The second Orton original, “Skimming Stone,” also finds Orton in a funky, enjoyable, keyboard-driven groove and an addictive bass line. Over the next six minutes, she sings with a sultry if not lackadaisical style that’s an aural come-on for the lucky listener.

As superb as those originals are–and they are certainly some of Orton’s best original compositions–it’s the second half of Best Bit, however, that makes this little EP worth seeking out. For the last two songs, Orton coaxed Terry Callier, another famous musical recluse, to join her on two notable covers.

The first cover is that of Fred Neil’s famous “Dolphins.” She avoids turning it into a funk number a la Tim Buckley; instead, she sticks rather close to Neil’s superior formula, resulting in a version that’s faithful, yet not merely imitative. Callier, too, is in fine voice; his singing calls to mind Al Wilson‘s take on the song, adding a soulful husk to the arrangement, wonderfully accentuating Orton’s gorgeous singing.

The second cover, “Lean on Me,” is a Callier composition, dating from his album Occasional Rain. It’s a fine remake of an already fine song, and it’s credited to Callier as well–rightly so, as he’s taking the lead vocal duties. It’s a powerful, simple song, with Orton’s angelic voice enhancing and giving a sympathetic, loving edge to this beautiful love song.

It would be two years before Orton would follow up Trailer Park with the superb Central Reservation, but Best Bit shows that her next creative move would certainly be an effort worth waiting for.

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