Beth Orton, "Sugaring Season" (Anti)
When Orton's "Trailer Park" came out in 1996, she made her name with a hybrid "folktronica" style. Now, she has abandoned the "-tronica" and dug deeper into pre-rock (heck, pre-Industrial Revolution) British folk, making "Sugaring Season" the sonic equivalent of leafless trees bending in the wind under a gray sky.
With hollowed-out acoustic chords and a voice that typically stands Orton at a stoic remove, there's an autumnal feel coursing its way through the album; the band behind her only adds to the brittleness of "Magpie" and "Candles." The warmest songs are the least compelling, but in their way, they strengthen "Sugaring Season" for varying up the tone. Upon concluding "See Through Blue" -- a brief, uncharacteristic music-hall waltz with quizzical strings and a more expressive, borderline sultry vocal -- Orton turns right back around with "Poison Tree," as chilly and stark as you're likely to find this side of Traffic's "John Barleycorn (Must Die)." Orton performs Wednesday at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis.
MARC HIRSH, BOSTON GLOBE
Van Morrison, "Born to Sing: No Plan B" (Blue Note)
Morrison is cranky. On this album, he's upset with capitalism, worship of money, the abuses of the "global elite," the sound of "some kind of phony pseudo-jazz" and the pettiness of others. Although throughout his career he has used songs to rail against record-company abuses, his 35th solo album contains his most overtly political work. His lifelong spiritual quest continues in songs such as "Mystic of the East," but he's more concerned with voicing his disillusionment with the secular world.
Morrison has few peers for longevity and continued vitality. And he's still a peerless singer, locking into phrases and nursing varying meanings through repetition, scatting happily and crooning soulfully, even when he's venting.
STEVE KLINGE, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Angie Stone, "Rich Girl" (SRR)
Although Stone never quite turned into the next big thing many predicted she would become, the neo-soul singer has been turning it out with commendable success for more than a decade. But her new CD is an embarrassment of riches or, simply, a minor case of overkill.
"Rich Girl" finds its groove early and sticks to it. And then keeps going till it wears down its welcome. The polished collection of songs is comfortable and familiar, and Stone is the shimmer in the mix, a beautiful, empathetic voice who doesn't typically over-sing. There's instant reward from the layered "Backup Plan." Her searing soul on "Guilty" helps her get away with the old "guilty for loving you" shtick, and her call for celebration in the well-constructed "Livin' It Up" seems deceptively effortless. However, "Rich Girl" feels repetitive and increasingly like background music; the 15 tracks easily could have been shaved to 10.
CHUCK CAMPBELL, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS SERVICE