Like so many artists little known in their own time, Karen Dalton has posthumously become sort of a cottage industry of influence on contemporary musicians, all of this despite the fact she only released two albums proper during her lifetime, It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You The Best on Capitol in 1969 and In My Own Time on Paramount in 1971, neither of which contained any of her original compositions. It wasn’t until the new millennium her influence was widely heralded across the spectrum of more folk-inclined musicians. Following the reissue of each in the mid-’00s, her long out-of-print albums became accessible to a broader, more receptive audience.
Finding an audience clamoring for more, followup albums were culled from the remaining odds and ends left behind by the late Dalton, who died in 1993 at the age of 55, the result of years of drug and alcohol abuse. Lo-fi home demo recordings, a live set. and other assorted orphan songs were cobbled together, more than doubling her recorded output issued during her troubled lifetime. With the vaults seemingly having been exhausted, the Karen Dalton reissue mill grew quiet following the release of 2012’s 1966 compilation.
But now, with Tompkins Square’s Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs By Karen Dalton, Dalton’s fans now have something entirely new: a collection of songs built around lyrics gifted by folk musician Peter Walker, who oversees Dalton’s Estate, penned by Dalton herself. Assembling some of the biggest female artists in folk and Americana, the collection finds an impressive lineup interpreting an equally impressive, albeit thus far fairly small, catalogue of Dalton’s original material.
Unlike other tribute albums that find artists reinterpreting their favorites of a particular artist, Unheard Songs features just that. And being unheard, the only aural reference point in formulating these lyrics into cohesive songs is the overall idea of the recorded music Dalton left behind. Rather than attempting to ape Dalton’s Billie Holiday-by-way-of-Greenwich Village-folkie voice, each artist here casts these songs in their own image.
The only thematic through line is in the tenor of the material itself. Full of melancholy, love and loss, standard folk tropes all, Unheard Songs manages to play as a distillation of the best qualities of the musicians gathered here, all tangentially descendants of Dalton’s captivating aesthetic. Where each has the ability to create a mood comparable to that of Dalton, it is their highly individual and recognizable voices that, like Dalton herself, allow them to inhabit the material of others and make it seem wholly their own.
While the majority of musicians stick to Dalton’s folk-based aesthetic, Laurel Halo’s reading of “Blue Notion” is almost wholly electronic, save her voice. This arrangement might initially seem incongruous in its lack of acoustic instrumentation. But when viewed as part of the whole, it proves itself thematically of a piece as the song functions as a direct reflection of Laurel Halo’s style just as Lucinda Williams’ read of “Met an Old Friend” could not have been done by anyone other than her.
Like Dalton, all these women possess a distinct, highly recognizable aesthetic that, in time could prove equally as influential. In this, they prove to be an ideal roster gathered to bring life to these lost songs. Where Dalton breathed new life into old folk songs on her own performances and recordings (Bob Dylan went so far as to call her his favorite singer), here these contemporary musicians are able to do the same, informed as much by the past as the present.
Only Larkin Grimm’s lovely take on “For the Love I’m In”, done as a female/male duet, shatters the illusion of the solo female vocalist. But, returning to Dylan’s claim, in which Dalton was not only his favorite singer but also one with whom his is said to have sang, it’s easy to hear Dalton and Dylan together on this heartbreakingly beautiful ballad. While hypothetical, it, like everything else here, is a reimagining of songs that never were. By grafting bits and pieces of Dalton’s story onto these unheard songs, we’re able to create an alternate narrative wherein Dalton herself recorded them and received the notoriety and critical praise within her lifetime she so richly deserved.
Remembering Mountains: Unheard Songs By Karen Dalton serves as a loving coda to the late singer’s career. Where she took the songs of those she admired and made them her own, so too do these 11 women take the unrecorded songs of a women they all clearly admire and craft them in their own inimitable image. Unheard Songs is a revelation; a more fitting tribute to a troubled artist could not be imagined.