What does it sound like?:
Karen Dalton emerged from the mountains of Oklahoma and, armed with a long-necked banjo and a twelve string guitar, she captivated New York’s Greenwich Village with her other-worldly voice. She sang songs in a bluesy style to a folk arrangement. Bob Dylan likened her voice to Billie Holiday. During an era of singer-songwriters, she only ever made two albums of covers. Nevertheless, she imposed her character on the songs by delving into their depths to draw out personal meaning. Sadly, she succumbed to alcohol and drugs, lost her way and died a premature death.
Now, it seems she was a songwriter after all. A series of carefully crafted lyrics have emerged, one including notations for chords. They are fragile wisps of lost hope, desire, longing, loneliness and death. They have been given to eleven different female artists to complete for this album. All of them keep it simple, with gentle melodies and sparse backing, to allow the spotlight to remain on the lyrics. Each of them brings a generosity of spirit to the performance that is really very moving. These are true collaborations, albeit with a ghost. There is a consistency of mood across all eleven tracks. Even Julia Holter, known for her lavish orchestrations, and the electronica artist, Laurel Halo, enter the spirit of ghostly minimalism. In fact, Holter’s My Love, My Love sounds as though it was recorded outdoors. Sharon Van Etten’s and Isobel Campbell’s contributions rank alongside their finest work. Patti Griffin’s singing is the closest to Dalton’s for emotional range. Lucinda Williams slurs Met An Old Friend endearingly, as though she knows she can’t compete with the quality of all the other voices, a point underlined by Josephine Foster’s crystalline a Capella version of the same song.
These are sad songs born from a sad life delivered with real grace and beauty. Beware, Remembering Mountains can be a painful listen. It can make a grown man cry.
What does it all *mean*?
Remembering Mountains is an album of touching intimacy, full of secrets, that is as fitting a tribute Karen Dalton could possibly get.
Goes well with…
Solitude and quiet reflection.
Might suit people who like…
Karen Dalton never sold many records in her lifetime and I can’t see this selling many either. Listeners have to be willing to explore the less well-trodden path and be steeled for heartbreak.