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Ruminations on Bridges Burned and Backs Turned

Karen Dalton gives a traditional lament its definitive reading.
Karen Dalton gives a traditional lament its definitive reading.

As a solo artist, Karen Dalton only recorded two albums (1969's It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You the Best and 1971's In My Own Time), and until recently, the latter remained primarily in the hands of a few obsessed vinyl collectors. Fortunately, some of those collectors include the likes of Devendra Banhart, who helped raise the late singer's profile in interviews and contributes an essay to a lavish new reissue of In My Own Time. The disc doesn't include any bonus music — a tortured soul with a lifelong drug and alcohol problem, Dalton was notoriously hesitant to record — but its very existence on CD is bonus enough.

Though its bare-bones predecessor remains the more nakedly compelling of Dalton's records, In My Own Time does sound nicely fleshed out in the studio, as it showcases the singer's ability to interpret standards ("When a Man Loves a Woman," "How Sweet It Is") amid lush arrangements. But it's no surprise that the set's crown jewel is also its most haunting track: "Katie Cruel," on which Dalton gives a traditional lament its definitive reading.

It's unsettling to hear Dalton, who died homeless and haunted, sing of bridges burned and backs turned. "When I first came to town, they called me the roving jewel / Now they've changed their tune, call me Katie Cruel," Dalton sings, shortly before her sprightly banjo gives way to the mournful strains of a lone fiddler. The song's sad ruminations on fate's whims — "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" — grimly mirror the singer's own sad end, which this long-overdue reissue thankfully mitigates, however slightly.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)