The received wisdom about Karen Dalton is that she was one of the finest interpreters of song to come out of the American folk revival that stemmed from the coffee houses of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Her versions of songs by Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, Dino Valenti and Paul Butterfield, amongst others, earned her lasting admiration, particularly amongst her fellow musicians. By implication, she is not thought of as a songwriter. And indeed, neither of the two albums she released before her death in 1993 contains a single self-penned song.
It may come as a surprise to learn that as a writer Dalton was both gifted and reasonably prolific, but as surprises go it is the most welcome kind. Dalton’s close friend, the guitarist Peter Walker, has lifted the lid on her personal files containing, amongst other things, handwritten lyrics and poems. With the help of record label Tompkins Square a number of these have been passed on to some of the finest contemporary performers. The resulting record, Remembering Mountains, is more than your average tribute album. In a twist of fate, the great interpreter now finds herself being interpreted by a raft admirers, all of whom are themselves accomplished songwriters.
Sharon Van Etten gets to take on the title track, a beautiful piano-led ballad with a meandering, unhurried structure which instantly shows Dalton to be a natural composer. Lyrically, it is both melancholy and hopeful, and there is a hint of Sandy Denny’s solo work about it. Patty Griffin’s slightly jagged voice is the perfect vehicle for All That Shines Is Not Truth. Lyrically oblique, gothic, bluesy and saturated in spooky organ and doomy piano, its cast of princes, ladies and mysterious shepherds delivers a discourse on uncertainty. If Tom Waits wrote fairy tales they might sound like this.
This Is Our Love, sung by nu-folk doyen Diane Cluck, is a deceptively simple song in list form, that conceals its ambiguities enigmatically, like a haiku. Julia Holter’s My Love, My Love begins unaccompanied before simple drones and background taps and hisses take it into distinctly dreamy territory. It is not so much a song as a sprawling prayer or an intensely personal promise to a loved one. Holter’s sweet but ever so slightly detached voice is the perfect fit for lyrics like ‘My love, my love/I will play you/softly like an ancient lute/I will whisper so only you can hear/That my love has laid its root.’ A little bit lovely and a little bit scary.
Lucinda Williams’ wonderfully world-weary delivery of Met An Old Friend flags up what seems to be an important theme in Dalton’s writing: the symbiotic relationship between, on one side, love and happiness and, on the other, sin and despair. These themes are also touched upon by Marissa Nadler in the echoey, twilit So Long Ago.
The most unexpected moment, and also one of the most satisfying, comes courtesy of Laurel Halo, whose minimal, ambient techno reading of Blue Notion resembles modern painting as much as song in its use of space and repetition. In contrast, Larkin Grimm’s For The Love I’m In is probably the closest anyone on the record gets to sounding like Karen Dalton. A simple, sympathetic combination of guitar, fiddle and banjo, coupled with Grimm’s more traditional country/folk vocal style gives a fair approximation of what the song may have sounded like in Dalton’s hands.
Scottish singer Isobel Campbell – formerly of Belle and Sebastian – provides a typically honeyed vocal backed up by an uncharacteristically meaty guitar on Don’t Make It Easy, with the results resembling bluesy dream pop, while Tara Jane O’Neil’s At Last The Night Has Ended is less experimental than much of her output: a smoky, jazzy effort, all brushed drums and slow, barroom guitar. The final song is a reprise of Met An Old Friend, sung a capella by Josephine Foster, herself a truly original artist whose voice is as unique in its own way.
Often tribute albums can be overly reverent or lacking in musical coherence. Remembering Mountains successfully avoids both of these pitfalls. In fact, the only disappointing thing about these songs is that we will never get to hear Karen Dalton singing them herself.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Remembering Mountains is Out Now on Tompkins Square
Order via Amazon