In My Own Time
(Light in the Attic)
Karen Dalton arrived in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960s fully developed as a folk and blues singer. She shared stages with the neophyte Bob Dylan and Fred Neil and other luminaries of the Cafe Wha? movement, but her command ran deeper than most of her comrades. Dalton's patented voice was a reedy drawl, the same frequency as Billie Holliday's, but more dozy. Her phrasing began with a toneless, halted breath that resolved into a crackling tone. It's almost all vowel, compressed and askew, like Miles Davis's trumpet with the mute half hanging off.
Dalton, who was not a songwriter, wasn't comfortable in the recording studio, and only made two records in her lifetime (she died in 1993). In My Own Time from 1971, reissued on vinyl last month, was the latter. It bid to set Dalton's phantasmal voice to folk, country, and R&B songs of the time. It only fails twice, in covers of the soul hits "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved By You)." Dalton fights to make it through "How Sweet It Is," which just moves far too fast to let her in; the conflict between rhythm and expression never gets resolved.
The rest of the songs are revelatory. Dalton's characters are souls overworked, and her songs reflect that exhaustion. Her whispering cover of George Jones's "Take Me" is a request for ecstasy, but it's born out of combat fatigue. Dalton mutters forlornly through the Band's "In a Station," before she pokes out at the end to wail, "Love seems so little to save!" It's a moment of awkward transcendence not found in most of the rest of the record, which is why it's startling.
The best moment is the traditional folk tune "Katie Cruel," a killer Southern gothic portrait of a lapsed beauty trying to hasten sleep. "If I was where I would be, then I'd be where I am not/Here I am where I must be, where I would be I cannot," Dalton sings over her rambling banjo and a solo gypsy violin. The words come out like raving lunacy, but Dalton's weary delivery makes it sound like utmost sanity. PAUL PEARSON
BEN DAVIS & THE JETTS/DES ARK
Battle of the Beards
Battle of the Beards is the cheekily named collaboration between Ben Davis (Milemarker, Sleepytime Trio) and Des Ark's Aimee Argote. The two have worked together before (Argote has songwriting credits on Davis's Aided and Abetted, and she's recorded songs with Jonathan Fuller, who plays with Davis in Bats & Mice), and both are from Durham, NC, meaning they're legitimate punks in the Burn Collector vein. So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see a split, but honestly, prior to listening, I was wondering just how the thing could possibly jell.
Davis's many projects are known for their bright, melodic pulse (he's a little like Ben Folds; could dude stop whining over Emmeline already?), and Argote's a spitting, growly blues woman with songs like "Jesus Loves You (But Yr Coming Home with Me Tonight)." Yet Battle of the Beards comes together amazingly well, laced with themes of late nights and lusty infidelity.
There are five tracks from Davis, five from Argote, then they've included two smart collaborative tracks featuring members of the UNC student orchestra. I'm a stickler for Argote's brave pissed-offness, so I still favor her quintet, especially "The Subtleties of Chores and Unlocked Doors," which is basically DiFranco-style romantic confusion, only with more spit and less schlock. Davis's songs sound rounder but no less urgent, and the percussive tumult of "Gorilla Bot" is prime for headphones on wintry street corners. It's rare to find a collaboration that works this well, let alone one that works this well and has a green elephant on the cover. MAIREAD CASE
When I first got the new Unnatural Helpers CD, the max-hardcore man-tits on the back cover gave me a weird nightmare—one of those chase dreams where I was running from a bunch of torsoless guys who were laughing at me and saying, "Kell-leee, it's time to meet the wizard!" But despite this, I freakin' love UH's new album.
After jumping around at lots of Helpers live shows, it's so great to finally have all these songs on CD. So often, when a punk or garage band hands me a disc, I'm disappointed—I'm such a sucker for the raw energy at the live shows, and many times the studio recordings lose that messy magic—but Unnatural Helpers' first album keeps the intensity. It's tight, it's fast, and it sounds really good really loud. Maybe it's the combined forces of members previously in Northwest superhero-heavyweights like the Diapers, the Tight Bros., the Intelligence, and Kinski that has helped them figure out how to do it right. I dunno. Just get it. Play it. Jump around. Just don't stare at that back cover too long. KELLY OKirk Picard Janeway Bakula