Karen Dalton's Time May Be Now
Light in the Attic reissues deluxe double 45rpm edition of cult fave
If you didn’t know anything about Karen Dalton when you dropped the stylus on one of her records, you’d quickly get the sense that her life probably hadn’t been an easy one. Mournful, and sung in a voice that parsed the terrain between Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, the songs on the 50th Anniversary Edition of the singer’s second and final long player can be a tough listen. But thanks to multiple reissue campaigns, her work has filtered on down through five plus decades of admirers to where her brief career has realized a certain cult status.
Like Judee Sill, whatever magic there’d been in their studio work was undercut by their complicated personal circumstances. But unlike her tragic contemporary, Dalton wasn’t a writer. The material she recorded was a mix of top-shelf Americana, chart singles and interpretations of traditional songs that she captured through her own lens. Her voice, which could drawl as easily as it could honk, was as much an asset as it was the thing that distanced her from the mainstream.
With one album of gentle, Blues and Folk-driven tracks in her rearview (1969’s It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best on Capitol), Dalton returned to the studio in 1970 under the direction of Woodstock impresario Michael Lang, who’d signed her to his Paramount Records Just Sunshine imprint. To get the job done, ex-Dylan bassist Harvey Brooks was dispatched alongside Dalton to the legendary Bearsville Studios in upstate New York. With Dalton physically not up to snuff, and still dabbling in chemical underground excesses, the sessions for what would eventually be titled In My Own Time, took just that – whatever time Karen needed to slowly bore through the process. Among the musicians that went along for the ride were heavy hitters like drummer Denny Seiwell (later of Wings…), Bill Monroe alum Bill Keith on banjo, and Janis Joplin pianist Richard Bell. But despite all the firepower she had on hand recording ran out to some six months, resulting in the 10 tracks released in 1971.
As noted in the liner of the recent Light In The Attic 2-LP 45rpm deluxe reissue, Brooks presented her: “…with a flexible situation. I left the decisions to her, to determine the tempo, feel. She was very quiet, and I brought all of it to her; if she needed more, I’d present options.”
Those options resulted, for instance, in the sublime opener “Something On Your Mind”—written for her by Dino Valenti (real name Chester Powers) of Quicksilver Messenger Service (and writer of The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and “Hey Joe”). Strong enough to be released as a single, the song elevates Dalton’s fragile, nearly-cracking voice to heights that, in many ways, she wouldn’t again reach. The song also quickly establishes new ground for her artistry to negotiate—far more modern than the Greenwich Village tinted tracks of her debut. Reports vary on how comfortable she truly was in this new space, but the more polished vibe of the kickoff tune immediately carries over to her cover of the Percy Sledge hit “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Even now, a half a century later, the song feels out of place—like a concession to where the industry might accept her if she just gave in a little. Far better moments are her version of the traditional “Katie Cruel,” which Dalton makes her own and sets the bar for any and all comers. Richard Manuel’s “In a Station” is the singer back on solid terrain again. This sweet, groovy rendition of The Band’s 1968 track could have landed comfortably on an early Steely Dan record in terms of how artfully it is arranged and recast by her backing band. Side III’s “Take Me,” is George Jones expertly pulled apart and reassembled as bourbon-soaked torch song material. It’s a slick move that sets up the marvelous curve ball of “Same Old Man” (as arranged by Steve Weber of The Holy Modal Rounders…)—a traditional ballad that pits an undefined drone against some mysterious back-mountain banjo. If it had been slotted in as the album’s finale, there’s little doubt of the deeper impression that it could have made. In its original sequence it’s still fairly breathtaking. Instead, the record closes with the lovely, lilting “Are You Leaving for the Country,” written by Dalton’s one time husband and Tim Hardin pal Richard Tucker.
Light In The Attic pulls out all the stops on this, their second pass at releasing this collection. Included in the gatefold package are Lenny Kaye’s 2006 liner notes as well as interview with major Dalton acolyte Nick Cave. Also onboard are a three worthy outtakes and two 7” reissues of her original 1971 ”Something On Your Mind/One Night Of Love” single and the 1971 Beat Club television performance the label released last time around. Unfortunately, those two singles edge out the four live tracks recorded at the Montreux Golden Rose Pop Festival the same year. They can be found, however, via streaming or on the CD version of the re-release. On balance, a third 12” featuring all of the extra material and bypassing the 45s might have been preferable. But the quiet and dynamically rich 180-gram black vinyl in this version of the album (there are several other different colored pressings…) and the well-appointed packaging still set this up as the preferred entry point into this album, which is available on LP (pressed at RTI), CD, cassette and 8-Track (!).