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Dalton Minor & the Ladies of the Canyon

May 30, 2009


No, no, that’s a common mistake…you’re thinking of KAREN Dalton, the ’60s folkie with authentic Billie Holiday replica pipes under the hood and Fred Neil compositions in the glove box. This is KATHY Dalton. She had a record on Zappa’s label in the ’70s. No, DiscReet, the one after Bizarre/Straight, I think. Something about one-night stands. I know it’s not “Whiskey Bars and One-Night Stands” because that doesn’t rhyme, and the title rhymes, but it’s something like that. Just found it on Wednesday, only five bucks!

Kathy Dalton is the latest pin in the map of one of my favorite areas of musical geography, the ’70s female singer-songwriter genre. I’m not sure what vitamin deficiency suddenly manifested in my bloodstream, but about six or seven years ago, with no real precedent or reason given the rest of my musical tastes, I started getting really itchy to hear any records from Women On Their Own in the ’70s. All of a sudden, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Janis Ian were especially fascinating to me. Whether weirdly abstracted (Joni’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, featuring the otherworldly “The Jungle Line,” played on Moog, acoustic guitar, and tapes of Burundi drumming), AM golden (Tapestry, duh), hide-the-razorblades depressing (I will gladly pit Janis Ian’s Between the Lines against ANY Jandek record you care to throw at me for uncut, 24-hour-suicide-watch depression), or just plain anemic (even the Muscle Shoals rhythm section just can’t inject much oomph into the iron-deficient vocals of Ms. Joan Carol Butler, but I’ll never sell it), it all sounded good. The sound, style, and frayed-nerve emotions of these tough ladies of mellow music really zonked me! Even now, as I feverishly attempt to fill in the gaps in my Crawl Unit collection, or squint my ears in hopes of decoding the threads of variation that differentiate assorted practitioners of Wall Noise, I still get mighty giddy when stumbling upon a confessional classic like Wendy Waldman’s Love Has Got Me, Bonnie Koloc’s After All This Time, or Teresa Trull’s femme-secessionist classic The Ways A Woman Can Be, in which the all-woman/all-lesbian production company really take the phrase “Sisters are doing it for themselves” to its impeccably-designed conclusion.

Obviously, the gingham dresses (or smart pantsuits), absurdly long and straight hair (or giganto poodle-fros) and soft-focus album covers evoke a comparatively innocent era of instant Sanka, hiding the therapy session bills from your husband, A-Frame houses in the Valley, and Mary Hartman as feminist hero, a time before Phillis Schlafly and took a riot hose to the ERA, and a time that feels, as my friend Eddie Flowers once put it, “like a comparatively saner era, unlike our present day, which resembles a William S. Burroughs novel.” But I don’t think I can lay thanks (or blame) purely at the feet of historical escapism.

There’s a toughness at work in these albums that is completely different from just-one-of-the-lads machoness of Suzi Quatro, Betty Davis, or The Runaways, but without being coy, male masturbatory fantasies like Olivia Newton John, Linda Ronstadt, or, well, The Runaways (all of which I love, don’t get me wrong). It may be maudlin, it may be pithy, but damn it, it’s real, and it’s homemade…except when it’s contrived and studio-glossed, and even then, it’s great!

The best part is that “female singer-songwriters of the ’70s” is not a strict genre classification, so my obsession can shuffle seamlessly between folk, country-rock, piano ballad, and L.A. “Mellow Mafia” pop morsels. Artifacts of this era can be found as far back as ’68 or ’69 (the title track from Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon kind of sets the template, enough so that I’ve decided to appropriate the title to classify this loose conglomeration of women/styles/albums), and credible classics (or at least intriguing missteps) can still be found well into the ’80s (check out Janis Ian’s crazed handshake with techno-disco, 1983’s Uncle Wonderful), with Joan Armatrading proudly carrying the flag forward well into the era of Reagan/Thatcher. At which point, it seems like the roles for musical women further polarized into sexy-slinky or butchy-punchy in the style of Riot Grrl. No room left for a gal and her piano to bend your ear about last night’s mistake at the bar, and the stranger in her bed this morning.

Several times in last few years, I’ve seriously considered creating a really janky-looking Geocities web site under an assumed character name, a housewifey fan of this type music who has been listening since the ’70s, but just now set up a web page to talk about “all these great albums from when I was younger, back when I had less problems in my life,” and have her critique the albums as I find them. I think I was going to call her Lynn something-or-other. I’m not sure why I felt I needed a pseudonym to write about this music…I just thought it would just be funny. For now, this blog will suffice…truth be told, I don’t have time for costume parties these days, anyway.

There will be lots more on this subject, including copious reviews of individual albums, but until then, here’s an annotated Hot 10 to get you started. As you can imagine, you probably won’t have to pay much more than a tenner to pick up most of the entire list, and you’d probably have just as much luck finding these at your local Goodwill as any high-end record store.

1. Janis Ian, Between the Lines (Columbia, 1975)

This is the blueprint for the whole damn thing — the icy piano, the pristinely-recorded accompanists, melodramatic strings, songs of loneliness and alienation, somehow appropriated as music to do macrame to. Starting with a relatively upbeat number (“When the Party’s Over”…seriously, “When the Party’s Over” is the UPBEAT number here!), the album spirals quickly into a funnel of gloom, regret, and anxiety, starting with the alienated classic, “At Seventeen,” surely one of the most morose songs ever to make it onto the top 10 in the pop charts, right? My favorite is “In the Winter,” a fable of fears of impending spinsterism that includes a cruelly clammy encounter with an ex-:

I met your friend
she’s very nice, what can I say?
It was an accident
I never dreamed we’d meet again this way
you’re looking well
I’m not afraid.

You have a lovely home
just like a picture. No, I live alone
I found it easier
you must remember how
I never liked the party life
up all night, lovely wife
you have a lovely wife.

(And yes, I am aware that decisions in Ms. Ian’s life a few years later made the gender of the person being spoken to quizzical, but it in no way blunts the impact. So don’t hand me that smirk.)

We only get a spoonful of relief at the record’s closer, the elegiac “A Lover’s Lullaby,” a song that comes at a point when you pretty much need a shoulder to sob on, and possibly, a talking-down. I admit, I only came upon Ian’s music after her brilliant essay on file-sharing, which spurred me to pick up some of her early classics. I love that her brilliant career has had not only a second act (this album and the albums that followed throughout the ’70s and early ’80s), but something of a third one as well from the late ’90s/present, crafting her bitter anthems into a format that casts her as the matriarch for modern bile-spitters like Ani DiFranco (not my cup of tea, but I dig the fact that she and Janis are BFFs very much). Her recent autobio, Society’s Child, is very near the top of my to-read pile.

2. Joni Mitchell, Court & Spark (Asylum, 1974)

Sometimes, the obvious choice is the best choice, and with Joni, you don’t have to traverse the deep cuts or hard-to-find obscurities to hit gold. (Doing so will yield rich fruit, though: I highly recommend Hejira, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and the double-live Shadows and Light for more spot-on ’70s Joni.) Blue is perhaps a more solid album from end to end, but this one gets the tone just right for the purposes of this list, from the smooth horns on “Help Me,” to the chooglin’ L.A. Express rock of “Raised on Robbery.” Plus, as anyone who’s ever tried to actually play a Joni Mitchell song can tell you, these deceptively straightforward hooks are girded on their undersides with all manner of stinging nettles and sharp barbs, so watch those wandering hands, fella.

3. Essra Mohawk, Primordial Lovers (Reprise, 1970)

Possibly the one album on this list you’ll have to spend more than a fiver to acquire on vinyl, due in part to her connection with Frank Zappa (she played in an early, pre-Freak Out! incarnation of the Mothers, and various legends contend that she was the first person to be named “Uncle Meat” by Frank, long before the album of the same name) and also to the relatively small copy run of this Reprise album. Rhino Handmade recently published an essential twofer pairing this one with her hit-and-miss third album, both of which are well worth your ears. (Her debut, recorded under her birth name Sandy Hurvitz, is titled Sandy’s Album is Here at Last! [Verve/Straight, 1967], and is recommended mostly for fanatics, Zappa or otherwise.) Most of the tracks are piano/vocal, with long, meandering, cyclical structures, and accompaniment ranging from sparse to overblown, conducted by Essra’s occasionally childlike, frequently feral vocal gymnastics. “I Have Been Here Before” was the partial inspiration for CSNY’s “Deja Vu,” and the countrified “Thunder in the Morning” was a “cheer up, honey” song for her then-lover Graham Nash, giving you a sense of whose coffee nooks she was using to scribble lyrics into a notebook in those days. She later went on to write “Change of Heart,” which was a huge hit for Cyndi Lauper in the 1980s (you might also remember her for her vocals on the Schoolhouse Rock! classics “Interjections!” and “Sufferin’ ’til Sufferage“). She also tried her hand at a new wave album in the mid-’80s which I will never sell, and you probably do not want (but should). The weird-girl-in-her-bedroom-vs-the-world vibe on this record, combined with its frequently shocking references to physically and emotionally-fulfilling sex (gasp! put the kids to bed before they hear!) make this record a hard act to follow.

4. Wendy Waldman, Love Has Got Me (Warner Brothers, 1973)

Bit of a left-fielder (seriously, Wendy who?), and maybe not as lyrically astute as any of the above (okay, DEFINITELY not as astute), but never fear: this album is a perfect, sunny little nugget of goofy-grin pop with mild musings about smart women making bad decisions in their choice of suitors (“Vaudeville Man,” for example). “Gringo en Mexico” is absurdly first-world (and yes, she pronounces it “Mehico”), but I love it just the same. “Train Song” has the type of sun-pouring-into-my-third-eye harmonies seldom heard outside the best albums by Saint Emmylou. The rest of her output’s got no flies on it, either.

5. Carole King, Tapestry (Ode, 1971)

I really, really, REALLY wanted to give this slot to Carole’s solo debut, Writer, mostly for its slightly rockier sound (thanks in part to the sizzly guitar of then-beau Danny “Kootch” Kortschmar on “Spaceship Races,” “Raspberry Jam,” and others) and its ramshackle, rough-around-the-edges sequencing. But I just couldn’t do that in good conscience. To ignore Tapestry is to ignore the 2000 lb. elephant in the room — an elephant in a loose-fitting cableknit sweater with a cat in the foreground. This record is straight-up unfuckwithable: “It’s Too Late,” (I realize that I’m the last person on the face of the planet to be an electric piano apologist, but seriously, the el. p. fills in the chorus are just SUMPTUOUS) “I Feel the Earth Move,” “You’ve Got A Friend,” “Smackwater Jack,” “So Far Away,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and on and on…anon anon anon. Ignore the 10 million who have bought this record before you, and pretend that you’re the first person on your block to own this. It might just set your puny mind on fire. (Alternate theory: I could be full of shit.)

6. Laura Nyro, Eli & The 13th Confession (Columbia, 1968)

As mentioned before, the form definitely got its start in the late ’60s, and lady Laura’s hot platter number deux hits all the right buttons several years before this style became an industry. You may know many of these tracks from charting versions by the 5th Dimension (“Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Sweet Blindness”), Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Comin'”) or Blood Sweat & Tears (“And When I Die”), but Laura’s got her own thing going, working both ends of the spectrum, both fussy perfectionist and skinny-white-lady-sings-great-big-gospel bawling, pretty much simultaneously. After a few more great albums in the early ’70s, she took a hiatus to raise a family, resurfacing in ’76 with Smile (more Joni-ish), up through the early ’90s, before dying of ovarian cancer in 1997. (Essential bookend volume: 1971’s New York Tendaberry, which is probably even more LOTC than this, but is a bit involuted and rococo as an introduction to Ms. Nyro’s work. As graduate-level LOTC studies, though, it’s worth 2 solid credit hours, one for each side.)

7. Bonnie Koloc, After All This Time (Ovation, 1971)

A local Chicago lesser-known who came up in the same coffeehouses as John Prine and Steve Goodman. Her debut contains an indelible image of Ladies of the Canyon-ism, Bonnie sitting in an antique armchair, decked out in a heavy peasant/folk-inspired muumuu, eyes closed in throes of moderate ecstasy, gray light coming through heavy drapes, surrounded by potted ferns, antique lamps, and a shaggy dog (probably named Boo, or possibly Sinclair). My girlfriend says it reminds her of every image in the book Our Bodies, Ourselves that isn’t a drawing of a uterus. I think it looks like a conscious attempt to take the visual motif of Tapestry and amplify it to the next level of the absurdly womblike. Heavier curtains! More comfy furniture! A cuddlier pet! Comfier clothing! The weather outside is more grim! Bonnie is too deep in contemplation to even look wearily at you! The inside cover paints another picture, the band (plus a young child) giving off that “desperate hippie enclave” vibe I usually associate with edge-of-towners like Amon Duul, MC5, or Ya Ho Wa 13 (albiet with more clothes and less shotguns). Starting with the roiling psychedelic opener “Don’t Leave Me,” the album simmers down quickly into less occult waters, including a song called “Jazz Man” that’s totally different from the song which would later become a hit for both Carole King and Lisa Simpson. Bonnie would later have a local hit in “You’re Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning,” a sunny ode to the one-night-stand (?) without shame or regret, doing for it what Altman’s California Split does for gambling — both are morality fables where the moral of the story is “try it, you’ll like it!” (Released on the Glenview, IL-based Ovation Records, a classy bunch if ever there was…all their albums were pressed in Quad!)

8. Maggie & Terre Roche, Seductive Reasoning (Columbia, 1975)

Best known at the time as Paul Simon’s backup singers on There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, these two Roche sisters later added younger sister Suzzy, amping up their (last-)name recognition in the late ’70s and setting the bar high for ambitious dorks with vocal harmonies from a land far beyond our comparitively tin-eared one. This record keeps the sexual tension, but roots it in a country-rock framework with a more standard ’70s presentation. Less jokes, more heart, and more ache. No Robert Fripp interjections here, but at the same time, you get far fewer faux-Andrews Sisters moments, either, so it balances out. “Telephone Bill” is a favorite (and is no relation to Bootsy Collins’ “What’s A Telephone Bill?”).

9. Ellen McIlwaine, We The People (Polydor, 1973)

Ellen’s flowing red tresses fill the field of the album cover, her face downcast in some sort of serious contemplation (the farm problem, the afterlife, how much bourbon was really in those “doubles” last night). Most of the Ladies in this canyon play either acoustic guitar or piano, and Ellen’s no different. She plays guitar. But man, she PLAYS guitar! A short-time mentee of Jimi Hendrix (she claims she was more influenced vocally than instrumentally), Ellen’s hyperkinetic slide work gets a bit much at times, as do her constant post-verse vocal interjections, especially recurrances of phrases like “yes I do!” or “no I won’t!” to reinforce something she said in the verse. But it hardly matters when they’re harnessed to the service of ripping through a cover of Jack Bruce’s “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune,” which transform the original’s convoluted riff into a propulsive, streamlined equivalent (avec cowbell) that makes the song feel like a funky streetcar thundering off the tracks down a hill in San Francisco. Also, a few instrumental tracks showcase McIlwaine’s jaw-dropping slide work and vocal interjections in a seriously in-the-pocket way, especially the opener, “Ain’t No Two Ways About It (It’s Love)” and the omomatopoeic “Sliding.” When it works, it works, and when it doesn’t, it’s pretty overdone (“I Don’t Want To Play”). Bonus: a capella take (with The Persuasions!) on the gospel standard “Farther Along,” and a seriously locked-down rendition of  “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven (But Nobody Wants To Die)” that just kills. Oh, and lest you think I’m stretching the boundaries of my own personal canyon to absurdity, I promise you that tracks like “All To You” and “Underground River” provide this album with ample mellow, contemplative, moody faire. Whatever, man, don’t sweat it — sometimes just undulate in the kitchen isn’t going to cut it. Sometimes, a lady’s just gotta be like Jazz Jermaine and go downtown to DANCE!

10. Teresa Trull, The Ways A Woman Can Be (Olivia Records, 1977)

She smiles a toothy smile. She holds a spotty dog. And inside, she introduces us to “The Olivia Records Collective,” a women-run organization that attmpted to make recording facilities, graphic design, and record distribution available to other sisters in the community. And don’t think me flippant with that out-of-vogue piece of terminology…The Ways A Woman Can Be is spilling out on all sides with sisterhood, with tracks like “Sister I Love You,” “Woman-Loving Women,” and “Don’t Say Sister (Until You Mean It).” And man, do I mean it! Everything about this record, EVERYTHING, is a treasure. The band is shit-hot, and every style, from pop-rock choogle to rim shot-heavy, percolating ballads hit all the right spots, both inside and outside (and underside!). Most songs have rousing backup chorus vocals (presumably some or all of the “Olivia Records Collective” joining in during coffee (light with sugar) breaks), and a lot of good feelings in its lean 34 minute playing time.  A certified jam.

One modern classic that is firmly “in the tradition”:

1. Azita, Life on the Fly (Drag City, 2004)

I refuse to stop quarreling with Blastitude‘s Larry Dolman about which is the better Azita album, this or her debut. I know he might be qualitatively right, but I stand my ground here. Empress Youseffi has made her love of Steely Dan and their influence on her music plain, but there’s more at work here than just Becker and Fagan…I hear flecks of Essra Mohawk’s lurchy angst, Laura Nyro’s intellectual defiance, and Janis Ian’s bags-under-the-eyes world-weariness on both this album and Enantiodromia, her debut. The instrumentalists flash their stuff throughout these often-convoluted choruses and strange structures, creating both snapping pop and convoluted, rather prog-like sequences, with Azita’s pinched, nasally vocals dancing on tip-toes through the minefield of changes. One of the few CD-era albums that must be had/heard on vinyl; it just feels so right.

Most honorable mentions: Bonnie Raitt (pre-’80s), Karla Bonoff, Phoebe Snow, Rickie Lee Jones, Carly Simon, Jessi Colter, Joan Armatrading, Joan Carol Butler, Mary MacGregor, Cyndi Grecco, Dana Gillespie, The Roches. Honoraries to Maria Muldaur and Mary Kay Place, even though they were more “interpreters of the canyon” than anything. All will be revealed soon.

Oh yeah, the Dalton LP. How is it? It’s pretty good! I find myself playing the last track on side one, “A Light That Shines,” over and over. An upbeat, anthemic number with a background “la la la la” chorus that makes me think of vintage Coca Cola commercials for some reason, with Dalton’s vibrato-heavy croon waxing majestic, reminding me of Bonnie Koloc before she smoothed it out in hopes of a big AM hit.

My Top 10 poses for a group shot, Azita bemusedly standing off to one side of the group:

Ladies of the Canyon - Group Shot

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