When record labels reissue albums, it’s just as important to critique the conversation around the album as it is to discuss the actual music. Why are we returning to a particular record at a particular point in time? Do obscure records, lost gems, and fan favorites get repressed because a bunch of lawyers finally decided how to disburse the royalties, or do the albums that get reissued say something about the attitudes of their potential audience?
In Karen Dalton’s case, economic factors explain why her second LP, In My Own Time, languished in obscurity for a quarter century. Dalton only released two albums: her 1969 effort It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best, a collection of one-take recordings made unbeknownst to Dalton when she dropped in the studio to visit her friend Fred Neil, and this 1971 follow-up, a more lavishly produced album that took six months to make. It’s So Hard saw CD re-release in the late ‘90s and attracted listeners who had read about Dalton in oral histories of the ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene. Dalton landed in New York just as Neil, Bob Dylan, and Tim Hardin were establishing themselves, and though she was too shy and erratic to thrive as a recording artist, she still earned the admiration and respect of her more renowned peers. When It’s So Hard reached a mass audience, revisionists began to argue that Dalton is just as essential a part of the ‘60s folk-rock pantheon as her famous pals. That album’s too-good-to-believe backstory only bolstered Dalton’s mystique – here was a woman who felt and lived the blues she sang so fundamentally that she didn’t need a producer to make affecting music. In praising her authenticity, though, Dalton’s converts couldn’t embrace here sophomore album so readily. With its borderline soft-rock trappings and glistening Nashville twangs, In My Own Time seemed to many like a case of a natural talent restrained by commercial pressures – as the record’s title implied, a seemingly timeless voice had begun to reflect her milieu.
Over the last decade, however, a new generation of listeners has begun to grant folk-rockers more space for pretension and adornment. We’ve seen neo-folkies like Devendra Banhart (whose hyperbolic praise of Dalton comprises a considerable chunk of this reissue’s 30-plus page booklet) and Joanna Newsom create sprawling, expensive albums that felt miles away from their humble, acoustic debuts, and we realized that bigger can indeed be better, or at least just as good. Meanwhile Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance and Eureka have demonstrated that the line between avant-pop experimentation and AM-gold populism is more easily transgressed than one might initially think. When The New York Times writes articles on Six Organs of Admittance and Arthur runs Best Buy ads, it’s probably time to re-evaluate In My Own Time.
Well, it’s beginning to look like this is a more substantial record than we originally thought. For one thing, Dalton seems as bewildered by the world of pop as one could be. As an interpreter rather than a songwriter, Dalton’s m.o. is to make others’ songs her own by re-imagining cadences, intonations, and even bar lines. For In My Own Time, Paramount, the parent company behind her label Just Sunshine, allowed Dalton to cover the kinds of smash hit songs she didn’t on her debut. In her versions of “How Sweet It Is” and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” the singer goes to great lengths to divorce her interpretations from more popular recordings – when working with tried and true material, an artist has to go to such lengths to assert themselves. She reworks “When a Man” into a gentler number more befitting a jazz coo-er than a soul crooner and injects a female perspective into the lyrics. Dalton sounds more mournful than celebratory, though, and so does her band – the horn section is downright woozy, on the verge of slipping out of key even. In “How Sweet It Is,” Dalton cultivates an even stronger sense of ambiguity. She seems as unconfident of the words she sings as Robert Wyatt does in his laconic take on The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” leaving her bandmates to sing the refrain as she wrings some other, ineffably sad sentiment from particular syllables. Lost in these songs, Dalton sings against pop’s promise of generality – her intonations suggest that love is an idiosyncratic, personal series of emotions that can never conform to a Holland, Dozier, and Holland blueprint, even when we want to believe that it can.
Much more assured are Dalton’s performances in “Same Old Man” and “Katie Cruel,” the only traditional pieces that appear on the album. Here she eschews the opulent bass lines and flashy drum fills that characterize the rest of the record and lets a banjo, a violin, and her voice do the job. For once, Dalton doesn’t manipulate meter or sing against the grain – the dynamic between her voice and the music is symbiotic, intuitive, unified. It’s as though her connection with songs from time immemorial is more fundamental, more human.
Let’s not make the mistake, though, of overplaying Dalton’s connection with authentic folk music. Otherwise we might end up looking at the artist’s Native American lineage and begin to espouse some horribly primitivistic sentiments. Lacy J. Dalton does this in the reissue liner notes: “Karen loved the earth, as a Native American, a woman, a queen, a pagan mother goddess rooted in this planet, and she was so desolate about what we were doing to it.” Pagan mother goddess’ don’t even touch Motown songs, not even to subvert them. While Dalton would constantly leave NYC to spend time in southwestern outdoor settings, she found her artistic footing in an urban environment and with people who were active participants in the pop music world. This was never an environment in which she was fully at home, but Dalton nevertheless cracked open its potential for critique. Only amidst sparkling arrangements can a wavering voice express just how bittersweet it is to be loved by anyone.