Sunday, November 25, 2007


A case can be made for Karen Dalton, the late Greenwich Village folkie sometimes referred to as the best singer nobody's heard, as the archetype for current pop-cabaret stylists Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux, even Leslie Feist. 
Neo-psych sprites like Jolie Holland and Joanna Newsom certainly have embraced  Dalton, who died in 1993 after struggling with alcohol, drugs and depression for much of her life.

In the two-disc set "Cotton Eyed Joe," only the third album of her music ever released, Dalton accompanies herself on banjo and 12-string guitar at an intimate club in Boulder, Colo., in 1962. A year or so later she would move to New York, where she fell in with the heady likes of Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and the Holy Modal Rounders.

Dalton sings two of Neil's compositions here: "Red Are the Flowers," a wrenching lament for the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and "Blues on the Ceiling," a devastating personification of despair. On the latter, amid a haunting exchange between voice and guitar, she cries, "Even cocaine couldn't ease the pain/I'd be better off dead," her ghostly whine as otherworldly as those of Delta blues singer Skip James and bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley.

The mood is narcotic throughout, with Dalton also using her uncluttered fingerpicking and keening phrasing to reimagine a pair of lesser known Ray Charles numbers to devastating effect. She invests Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" with an equally mournful voice, her intonation, like Billie Holiday's, as hornlike as it is human.

-- Bill Friskics-Warren