Karen Dalton ‘1966’ Review in Pitchfork (Posted By Harry)

Karen Dalton 1966' (Delmore Recordings)

Karen Dalton 1966' (Delmore Recordings)Karen Dalton’s ‘1966’ Pitchfork review

Karen Dalton
Delmore Recordings

8/10 Review
By Lindsay Zoladz

“Picture the great American folk artists of the 1960s and 70s sitting for a group portrait; Karen Dalton’s there, but her figure’s a blur, flitting restlessly out of frame. Dalton hated recording and felt at best ambivalent about performing in front of strangers (she much preferred playing for friends, on porches and in living rooms), which means that although she’s got one of those voices that gets talked about in hushed, reverent tones by everyone from Bob Dylan to Devendra Banhart, she preferred to sit out the kind of rituals that secure a person a snug spot in the canon. She didn’t don face paint and a gypsy costume and hit the road with the Rolling Thunder Revue, she didn’t dance The Last Waltz under Scorsese’s spotlights, and– years after her flight from Greenwich Village to Colorado– she’s present on the Basement Tapes only as the elusive subject of Richard Manuel’s beguiled plea: “Dear Katie, if you can hear me…/ How much longer will you be gone?”

Dalton has a Mona Lisa voice: it gestures toward a whole universe of unknowable things, and the way it makes notes curl up at the corners seems to suggest– no matter how sad the song– that its keeper is slyly smiling to herself about something you’ll never quite comprehend. I can think of few better examples of this quality of her voice than her arresting take on Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe”, which opens 1966, the latest collection of unearthed Dalton recordings. The song’s most famous version, Rod Stewart’s 1971 cover, is all stomping melodrama, and even Hardin’s comparatively subdued original has an air of tragedy: It is an accusation, a wounded person blaming an unfaithful lover. Dalton finds something else in the song. Her gentle cascade of finger-picked notes and plaintive, drama-free vocals (“If I listen long enough to you/ I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true”) turn the song into something of a koan: It becomes an acceptance of love’s co-existing light and shadow. She sings the same words as Stewart and Hardin, but in her care they take on an entirely different meaning. Like so many of her other classics– her versions of “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” come to mind– the track presents a solid argument that Dalton (who never wrote any material of her own) is one of the most subtly skilled interpreters in the history of American folk.

The Oklahoma-born Dalton put out just two studio albums in her lifetime, 1969’s Its So Hard to Tell Whos Going to Love You the Best and 1971’s In My Own Time. In the past few years, though, the number of Dalton tracks known to the world has more than doubled, thanks to two reissues from the Delmore Recording Society: the home recordings of Green Rocky Road, and the double-disc Cotton Eyed Joe. The latter is the Karen Dalton equivalent of a live album: just she and her 12-string, deftly plucking traditional folk numbers in a Colorado bar called the Attic, the end of each track punctuated by the applause of maybe a few dozen people. It’s a mesmerizing performance, and comparing Cotton Eyed Joe against some of the more bombastic live records of her contemporaries, its unpretentious intimacy is as refreshing as a breath of mountain air.

1966 finds Dalton in a setting even more intimate: her own cabin in Colorado, rehearsing with her estranged husband, fellow Village ex-pat Richard Tucker. Dalton had no intention for these songs to be recorded; the 14 tracks here exist only because Tucker’s friend Carl Baron brought a portable reel-to-reel over one day and captured the couple preparing for an upcoming gig. Some tracks feature Dalton solo, and some feature her and Tucker together, working out the kinks of some the duets in their repertoire, like “Mole in the Ground” or Fred Neil’s “Other Side to This Life”. As their voices and guitar stylings unite and occasionally veer off into imperfect harmony, 1966‘s more unpolished moments invite a glimpse into their process, while the occasional snippets of dialogue from the couple (who split shortly after) straddle the line between poignancy and black comedy. “Wow, what an ending, we just did it perfect,” Tucker sighs at the end of a rendition of Hardin’s “Shiloh Town”. “No, we didn’t,” Dalton mutters. “I didn’t know what you were doing.”

The material on 1966 spotlights two songwriters in particular (and two of Dalton’s closest friends): blues-folkie Neil and confessional songwriting pioneer Hardin. Neil’s “Little Bit of Rain” and Hardin’s “While You’re on Your Way” would later become some of Dalton’s signature tunes, but these are the earliest known recordings of her interpretations. 1966 was also the year that Hardin released his acclaimed debut, Tim Hardin 1; shortly before Baron’s recordings, Hardin had traveled to Colorado to personally play his new songs for Dalton and Tucker. Since she was used to singing almost exclusively traditionals before 1966, there’s something moving about how many of the songs on 1966 are penned by either Hardin or Neil (who released his own classic Bleecker & MacDougal a year prior). By bringing them into her oeuvre, Dalton’s saying she thinks the songs her friends were writing were just as good as the classics (and they way they’re juxtaposed here show that she was right), and her adapting them to her own style foreshadows the forays into contemporary pop she’d explore on In My Own Time.

Dalton had a hard life: She struggled with a drug addiction that she never overcame, and she was more or less homeless when she died in New York in 1993. 1966 augments her legend not by romanticizing the tragedy of her life, but instead by showing the skill and depth of feeling that Dalton brought to even her most informal performances. It was an ordinary evening that Baron captured on his reel-to-reel, and the moments when his recorder drops out (like the clipped 40 seconds of “Hallelujah”, as if snatched from the ether, that conclude the disc) only add to this collection’s poetry– they suggest the hundreds, maybe thousands of other times that Dalton played sets like this one for nobody in particular. Another testament to the riveting power of her music, 1966 is one more piece to a puzzle that will never be complete– which is of course how Dalton herself would have had it.”

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