I first heard Karen Dalton on the radio many years ago, thanks to music scholar and journalist Billy Pinnell, who played “Little Bit of Rain” one Saturday morning. So struck was I with her voice, and similarity to Billie Holiday, that I managed to procure myself a copy of this album just a few days later. And I’m certainly glad that I did. Although to describe her as a ‘white Holiday’ would be an injustice, since Dalton definitely had a style all her own, whose delivery could be both painful and uplifting, with a world weariness unmatched even by the likes of Janis Joplin. Although what both singers had in common is that their inimitable vocals can at times be an acquired taste. Yet what really sets Dalton apart was her ability to take somebody else’s tune and make it her own. And while not much of a song writer herself, her skill at adopting other people’s material and translating it was nothing short of brilliant.
Originally released in 1969, and re-released in 2006, It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best was Karen’s debut, and is a bluesy and emotionally moving collection of performances, each of which is infused with her own unique approach to the song at hand. And just like Sandy Denny, another tortured soul who was able to transport the listener to an entirely different place, with that exquisite and angelic voice, could Dalton also carry you away along the extended melancholic stream of human experience.
We begin with the depressing and gloomy “Little Bit of Rain”, a Fred Neil song, and is a good indication as far as the rest of the album is concerned, because if you don’t like this, then you certainly won’t enjoy anything else. One thing’s for sure, she had an instrumental quality to her voice, which meant that less was more, hence all the minimal backing. “Sweet Substitute” is a feast for the ears as Dalton laments about the man she loves but who cannot love her back. A familiar story, and one which will continue till the end of time. When she sings that “love is blind” you can hear the conflict in her voice, almost to the point that the speakers might start crying at any moment.
“Ribbon Bow” is another reflective, melancholy number about lost love and dysfunctional relationships, on both sides. But you better break out the Aropax, or do a fun run, as there’s more to come. On “I Love You More than Words Can Say” Dalton mourns with an emotion that is difficult to describe. It’s almost as if her entire world was crumbling down around her while we ourselves experience it with the luxury of distance. Mind you, anyone who has been through heart-ache could surely relate to such canvassing of emotion. The title track simply grabs you by the heart enough to make even the most devout of atheists realise that there really is a soul to everyone.
Another connection which Dalton inadvertently had with Janis Joplin was her cover of Fred Neil’s “Blues on the Ceiling”, whose lines “I’ll never get out of these blues alive, alive/Never get out of these blues”, and while Janis never actually covered that particular song, the fact that she was intent on including “Buried alive in the blues” on what would turn out to be her last album is at least something worth noting. Since both were strong singers and women of note.
Dalton breaks your soul on “It Hurts Me Too”, to the extent that I’m surprised that the engineers weren’t all wiping their eyes the whole way through. Things are more upbeat (sort of) on “How Did the Feeling Feel to You”, which is another short though painful reflection on Dalton’s man troubles. The same with “Right, Wrong or Ready”, a plaintively evocative piece that sees one gazing out the window while wondering where it all went wrong. The depression continues with “Down on the Street (Don’t You Follow Me Down)”, and while the guitars might seem uplifting Dalton’ vocals are anything but. As if she’s holding a razor blade to her wrists while she’s singing it.
At the end of the day this is hardly the most uplifting of albums, to the extent that one gets the impression that Dalton wasn’t an especially happy person. In other words, if you’re a manic depressive, and are going through issues with your loved one, as well as rather fond and forlorn of depressingly beguiling female singers, then Dalton is an experience you will never forget, and hopefully cherish as much as I do.