Music. Response. | “In my own Time” by Karen Dalton

December 28, 2020

Twenty-twenty. There’s a hindsight joke in there somewhere, but who has time to look back for it? Did anything great come out of this shit-for-pie-crust year? Yes. For me, twenty-twenty was a year of finding comfort and companionship in the grooves of vinyl.

“Yesterday, any way you made it was just fine.” These are the first words you hear Karen Dalton sing on “In My Own Time,” and in 2020, I made it with a little help from my record friends. This was one of them.

The voice says it all.

Once you hear it you know you must have it in your life. Ethereal, lilting, and definitely its own instrument held in the throat of Karen Dalton. At times, her voice sounds more like a horn, and by that, I mean a trumpet not the horn on your Corolla. Warning—I’m going to attempt to describe this voice multiple times during this little piece because it’s the kind of voice that dares writers to sticky note the shit out of it. But even I know anything I write will be inadequate and just a bunch of words springing from fingers. Words ignoring that all you have to do to enjoy this voice is trust your ears.

Just listen.

It came to me via, of all things, my Spotify Discover Weekly list. I have a love/hate relationship with that list but can’t deny it has delivered some ‘must buy now’ suggestions during the course of our tumultuous relationship. The song that first sucked me into the Karen Dalton quicksand is also the first song from this album. You kick off with the pistons of a baseline already firing, and then here comes Karen, sliding into your consciousness and you’re like “Who the fuck is this?” Is there a more perfect symbol of 2020 than a WTF Karen appearing on the scene? I think not.

There are giant holes in my musical education and Karen was sitting with her banjo at the bottom of one. It’s a mystery since the liner notes of this album mention she was on the Greenwich Village folk scene back in the day, and surely with my love of Dylan, she should have crossed my path before? But no. Like her voice, she floated around the periphery of my musical consciousness and I remained dumb to the Dalton.

At this point, let me tell you a fun fact about me and my musical consciousness and how things soak into the sponge of it. I like the surprise element. I like to be caught off-guard. For this reason, I will often discover a new (to me) artist, listen only to one or two songs from the album that has snared my attention, then resist all urges to listen to any other songs from that album and just buy it. Two songs—that’s my safety. Why do I do this?

It’s going to sound weird, but I miss how Russian roulette-y I used to be with music as a teen. With no way to listen to an entire album—not out on the farm, nor by visiting the music counter at K-Mart in the nearby country town—I would rely on my enjoyment of a song heard on the radio or viewed on the handful of music programs that aired on television. Countdown, Beat Box, Rock Arena. They were basically my listening booths.

As a result, I would be forced to take a chance, buy the cassette with my hard-saved money, press play, and see what I would get. It’s the pursuit of this feeling that gets me. Hearing something for the first time and knowing you have invested in this artist. That you can judge their choices. That you can spend hours examining tiny printed lyrics that the record label somehow jammed into those cassette cases as they concertina’d their way across your bed like some kind of lyrical jewel spread.

Two songs in on “In my Own Time,” and I committed to this album. Found it on Discogs. Paid too much for a reissue, but guess what? I don’t care. It’s great. Her voice is now an artist in residence in my apartment. Sometimes I catch it creeping behind the bookcase, sneaking along the skirting boards, getting ready to tickle its way into my ears.

My enjoyment of its presence is rent paid in full.

Released in 1971—making it the same age as me but way cooler—its brown, melancholic cover deflects any advances of the ‘this looks interesting’ crowd. Which is a shame, because it is interesting. She doesn’t sing any of her own songs on this album, but her voice is tattooed upon the skin of every single one. This is her interpreting the words of others and making something unexpected.

Sticky notes.

Her voice is elastic. It’s a Rubik’s cube that’s both solved and unsolved on every beat. It’s a Wookie’s warble with voice coach control. Words are born from her mouth fresh and naked and you want to just smack their bottoms. It’s sleepy, it’s awake, it’s startling yet comforting. A voice-box pumped like a squeak-toy heart, blood in, blood out, the breath, the body. The spell this voice casts has frogs in the recipe. It’s jaded like an old road comedian, sharp like one too. It broods like a late-blooming cousin, slides through rooms like a sock-footed child on linoleum, and sits on the edge of your bed to tell you a soft story. Muted trumpets and slow chicken bawlks. These eggs are fresh. This girl is gold.

OK. I’ll stop now. As I said, words are inadequate when simply listening will tell you more. Am I overselling it? Maybe. But it stands as an example of someone who knows who to interpret songs in their own way. In their own time, if you like. She stretches her voice across the ribs of her band’s tightly laid backing and you can’t help but be a little impressed. It’s so lazy, but so…awake.

Some of you will hate this record. You’ll say: “Well, that’s exactly what I’d expect from someone named Karen.” You’ll think she tries too hard. That the voice I like so much is awful, maudlin, and melancholy. Like with Dylan, you won’t be able to get past it. Not me. On a rainy or cold morning, with my toes encased in wool and a beanie on my head waiting for my coffee to bloom, I’ll shuffle over and put on this record to slip away on my Karen cloud. Karen! Karen!

The entire album is only 35 minutes long—a bit less—and if you’re anything like me and were stuck alone in your apartment this year, time and your use of it was the only thing 100% within your control. Put this on and fly away. Release the Karen.

Born in Texas, divorced twice before the age of 21, arrived in Greenwich Village in the 60s and, according to her daughter Karen, at that time had lost two of her bottom teeth breaking up a fight between two of her boyfriends, a Wikipedia tidbit that while seeming pointless also says a lot. “She did not enjoy much commercial success during her lifetime,” which was possibly due to the alcohol and heroin? This re-issue includes liner notes with excerpts from fans like Bob Dylan and Nick Cave. If you like them, you might like this. 🙂


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