Folk singer Karen Dalton had a voice closer to Charley Patton than Sandy Denny, a unique voice that most people probably either love or hate.
This is Karen Dalton recorded to two-tracks by Joe Loop more than 40 years ago: arguably a portrait of the artist as a young, pure, authentic folk singer who would mingle at her own pace with the urban folk revivalists. Now, I don’t give a bo weevil’s ass in an art gallery about that stuff, so let me say straight off that I prefer the rounded edges of her 1971 album In My Own Time where her voice is encased in a jazz and blues inflected folk rock setting courtesy of Harvey Brooks, Richard Bell, and Amos Garrett (amongst others). If you don’t believe me try listening to the versions of “Katie Cruel” on the two records. However, as a glimpse of the triumph of an artist with nothing to hide behind Green Rocky Road is a snapshot nonpareil. Dalton’s skill mocks this nakedness on an album that is not so much “unplugged” as “completely unadorned”. Her talent for rhythm and feeling cuts a swathe through the fragile chaff of modern alt-folk. Highlights include the splendidly hypnotic “Ribbon Row” and “Nottingham Town”. She doesn't quite deliver a convincingly coarse eroticism on “Skillet Good and Greasy”, but Dalton could sing the equivalent of the phone book and I’d dig it (as her version of “Whoopee Ti Yi Yo” demonstrates).
When Dalton’s voice naturally escapes a certain level, though, it can be as rough as a foghorn blast shattering a window. Not everyone will care for the effect but the power is undeniable. Nick Cave calls her his favorite female blues singer and he should know a sound that could rock the walls of Jericho. Indeed, when Bob Dylan made it to Greenwich Village in the 1960s, Karen Dalton’s was the voice that he felt stood out. It is not difficult to suspect that he heard in her the triumphantly imperfect tones of defiance and conviction that others have often heard in him.
Dalton has been compared a thousand times with Billie Holiday. That may be for the perception of physical beauty, the reality of heroin use, or the undeniably seductive world-weary weight that both project. That said, I doubt Holiday could match Dalton on either the 12-string or banjo and I find Dalton’s missing teeth pretty charming! Seriously, though, Dalton reminds me more of Tim Buckley or Vashti Bunyan. All three have pipes and phrasing that people either love or run a mile from. She also brings to mind the cult of Nico, in that people (especially men) will always look at her picture and mistakenly imagine that their love could have saved her from a cruel world, or from herself. The Band’s Richard Manuel is said to have written “Katie’s Been Gone” from The Basement Tapes about Dalton. If that sounds glamorous, then her death (in 1993) after dealing with the effects of HIV for at least eight years, is probably less so.
In the blizzard of reissues, re-masters and box set presentations, it can be hard for both cynics and innocents to know what to trust. Sometimes it seems like anyone who made a disc that sold negligibly more than 15 years ago is now a legend and anyone who sold even less is a cult. Obviously the reissue of Karen Dalton’s material is not a coincidence; it reflects the business recognition of a climate potentially favorable to certain sounds, for folk’s sake. Meanwhile, over on “her“MySpace page some Italian photographer suggests that she “keep in touch”. Sometimes, though, an accidental or timely invitation should be accepted with good grace. This is a fine reissue and re-master. Put any misgivings aside and check out Karen Dalton, here, on Cotton Eyed Joe, and In My Own Time.