What could gangly folk siren Beth Orton and foppish rockers Blur possibly have in common (other than being English)? For one thing, collaborations with dance-music maven William Orbit, that mumbly Brit who crafted Ray of Light's glossy electronics and stood next to Madonna at the Grammys a few weeks ago (he discovered Orton and produced Blur's new album). More important, both reinvented themselves on 1997 records and are now building on those breakthrough discs with vulnerable, emotionally charged follow-ups.
Orton first surfaced on several of Orbit's meandering dance tracks 1992's ''WaterFromAVineLeaf'' sounds like an early blueprint for his work with Madonna and found minor fame singing with beat-happy bands the Chemical Brothers and Red Snapper, though her voice often got lost in all the electronic glop. That changed with her debut album, '97's Trailer Park. Shedding Orbit, Orton mixed traditional songcraft in with the electronics, revealing one of pop's prettiest voices clear and clean and capable of making even the most mawkish cliche sound utterly convincing.
But Trailer Park lacked focus; it was more an accomplished demonstration of her vocal talents than a cohesive album. With the fully formed Central Reservation, Orton completes her transformation into throwback troubadour, casting off most of the canned beats and electronic textures for a strummy sound closer to plaintive '70s singer-songwriters like Carole King and English folkies such as Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson (although Everything But the Girl's Ben Watt does funk up two songs). It's a move guaranteed to rankle her hipster champions, who'll no doubt recoil at Central Reservation's lack of stylistic ambition. But so what if album opener ''Stolen Car'' sounds enough like Natalie Merchant to make Orton the dippy diva of the next decade? It's immediately followed by a remarkable string of heartrending weepers, including the slithery ''Couldn't Cause Me Harm,'' the soaring, seven-minute ''Pass in Time'' (which boasts backing vocals from underappreciated soul-boho Terry Callier), and the bare-bones ''Feel to Believe,'' a ballad made more powerful by its acoustic simplicity. Sometimes it's enough just to let a great singer sing, and on Central Reservation Orton's vocals are consistently stunning.
Blur, on the other hand, have no such innate talents. Notoriously chameleonlike, the band has always been more interested in complex conceits than self-examination, adopting Anglo poses that referenced everyone from the Kinks to Madness. But their fifth album, 1997's Blur, was a major departure, a supposed homage to American indie bands like Pavement and Tortoise, and it generated their biggest U.S. hit, ''Song #2.''
The influence of those groups is much stronger on the sprawling 13. Written following singer Damon Albarn's split with his girlfriend of eight years (Elastica's Justine Frischmann), the album has been billed as a tortured post-breakup meditation, and at least in one respect that rings true: It's extremely messy. Kicking off with the gentle, gospel-tinged single ''Tender,'' the album lurches between gritty guitar workouts (''Bugman,'' ''B.L.U.R.E.M.I''), druggy dub experiments (''Battle,'' ''Mellow Song''), and trembling laments (''1992,'' ''No Distance Left to Run''). Orbit's masterfully sludgy production adds a layer of grime to even the poppiest songs, and his cut-and-paste edits and swooshing studio flourishes create a sense of dizzy late-night anguish throughout.
Albarn's self-pitying soul-baring isn't always convincing (''Come on, come on, come on/Get through it/Come on, come on, come on/Love's the greatest thing that we have''), but musically the album is perfectly evocative of some of life's lowest moments. While I'll take Reservation's romanticized melancholia over 13's harsh realism, each is undeniably powerful in its own way.