It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best
he promo material for Corrine Bailey Rae’s self-titled album (number five in the UK album charts after seven weeks as I type this) must’ve had Billie Holiday written in large letters all over it, because that’s what all the reviews had to say despite all evidence to the contrary (i.e. the record itself). Corrine Bailey Rae doesn’t sound like Holiday and it’s inconceivable that she could come out with any sort of leftfield “Strange Fruit” move anytime soon. It’s more likely that she probably thinks that “Strange Fruit” is about a pomegranate. The only other explanation, and I’m sure that this can’t be true, would be that UK music writers and their editors are deaf/stupid/both and have to recycle the same reference points for each genre, whether or not they fit.
So, to Karen Dalton. Another case where everyone, this time including me, will tell you that she sounds like Billie Holiday. She does, but the reason that she can withstand this comparison is because her voice is self possessed and of itself. Devendra Banhart copped his boy-man singing style from this disc as much as from Marc Bolan, but his voice conveys the feeling that he has studied moves, that he could have, in a different time period, ended up sounding like, I dunno, Vince Neil. Dalton’s voice sounds like it could sound no other way, slipping always just beyond her control, like there’s a rupture between ‘her’ and her ‘voice.’ It’s the type of voice that makes me want to ask her, “O Karen, why aren’t you singing in a normal, easily digestible style that will make your record popular,” despite knowing exactly what the answer is—that that popular record would not be now making me feel queasy and seasick and lovelorn over thirty years after its recording—that even if she had somehow made a more popular record it would have ended up even more forgotten now, unable to reach through time, just like all those other dusty post-folk singer-songwriter records that today sound so inert in their confident expression.
Not that Dalton gave a fuck either way. The thick booklet that comes with this reissue is filled with six interviews, each of which testifies that Karen was impossible to get to know. Despite moving from Oklahoma to New York’s East Village with a 12-string, a banjo, and a kid in 1960 and hanging out and performing with all the scene notables, she ended up recording her album after the acoustic folk boom had ended, 1969, and only because her friend Fred Neil and his producer tricked her into it at the end of one of their recording sessions. It was recorded quickly and live, with few overdubs, catching Dalton’s voice up-close and tenderly. Sometimes it sounds like new snow underfoot. Her pianistic 12-string playing and Dan Hankin’s acoustic guitar are raw, weaving round each other like ivy on old brickwork, creating a diffident Morrison/Reed-esque ‘accidental’ beauty. None of the songs on this album are written by her—they were made famous by people as diverse as Fred Neil, “Jelly Roll” Morton, and Otis Redding—but she makes them hers for the length of time that she plays them.
The ad-hoc nature of the album also means that it covers a very small area in terms of tone-colour, arrangement, pacing, and emotion; it can be too one-note even in its brief thirty-two minute running time. In short bursts however It’s So Hard… can be mesmerising, and in total it’s sometimes, although hopefully not too often, one of the all-time great late night cry accompaniers.