CARPENTERS

OVERVIEW

I was dead wrong about this brother sister duo. They’re the poster children of 70s schlock, and I grew up lampooning their bland pap. It’s not as though I despised their hits, and it’s not as though I wasn’t aware of their retroactive reevaluation by the cool kids, along the lines of ABBA (albeit much less enthusiastic and relegated mainly to Kim Gordon and Todd Haynes). It’s just that: I assumed they were lame beyond any rock fan’s genuine needs. Well, OK: I stand corrected. Richard was a brilliant arranger from the Bacharach school, his tastes far removed from the rock world, and Karen was a bad-ass on multiple levels. Her pathos-dripping vocals are of course her main asset, but her drumming and PRESENCE lends charm and gravity to Richard’s journeyman professionalism. I need not mention her tragic demise, and of course it’s impossible to hear this band without thinking about it.  It’s a shame she’s remembered as much for her anorexia as for being the best singing/drumming female in a famous band. The bizarre white-bread smiley suburban 70s photographs from their album sleeves, juxtaposed against the horror of Karen’s condition and Richard’s own addictions, create years later something that never existed when the band was in full swing: edge. And they ARE edgier and weirder and more fun than basically ever other MOR adult-pop band that followed in their wake. That isn’t to say there isn’t a ton of silly garbage on their later records. But a few of their singles are unrivaled in this genre, and in a post-modern music universe – where no genre is an inherently bad genre – some of their recordings sound like total classics.

THE ALBUMS:

Offering/Ticket To Ride

Close To You *

Carpenters

A Song For You *

Now And Then

Horizon

A Kind of Hush

Passage

Made in America

Karen Carpenter (Karen Carpenter)

Time (Richard Carpenter)


OFFERING/TICKET TO RIDE

B+

On their debut, the band was still sonically tied to the groovy 60s. Opposed to the clean AM schmaltz of the 70s that everybody associates ’em with, the band sounds here more like sunshine pop and bubblegum jazz groups a la The Free Design. Beach Boys-y harmonies abound. At the time of its release, this music probably sounded incredibly square and dopey to a rocker. But when bands like Broadcast and Belle & Sebastian spend entire hip careers chasing the sonics and breeze of cutesy 60s pop, it’s hard to write off a album that nails it so naturally! One thing this album showcases is that this was ALWAYS Richard’s band, and he was just as much the lead singer as Karen in the early days. Funnily enough, he has a pronounced LISP – as if the music couldn’t get any lamer. (and of course A.C. Newman from The New Pornographers has a lisp too, and their music is wonderful – I’m guessing those guys are major Carpenters fans!) Richard and songwriting partner John Bettis’ filled up this album with lots of originals, but the covers aren’t all Brill Building MOR – they include Beatles and friggin’ pre-Harvest Neil Young! Plus, there’s a pronounced Britpop vibe here, with bouncy pianos and harpsichords and Richard’s goofy vaudeville vocalisms. “Your Wonderful Parade” is straight up psych-pop, and one of the more experimental and Beatles-y early Carpenters tracks. Pretty melodies and swinging light jazzy grooves lift tracks like “All I Can Do” and “Turn Away,” but cornball orchestrations drag down ballads like “Someday” and “Eve.” The latter does, however, sport a killer Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish melody (I mean that sincerely, and I’m probably losing readers left and right here). Look: Richard was a great arranger, the vocals are beautiful, Karen’s drumming is fantastic. Everything is melodic, and if you can get over the inherent corniness, you might just enjoy this album more than whatever Jefferson Airplane were putting out this year. I certainly do. It’s probably the closest thing the band ever put out to a rock and roll album, and a “band” album – they’d get better and find their famous sound, but this is probably their most exuberant and charming release.


CLOSE TO YOU

A-

Brother and Sister Carpenter’s gorgeous second album initiates perhaps THE all time classic adult contemporary trilogy! Of course, that’s selling it very short – this is, indeed, lush soft pop full of Bacharach covers, but it’s remarkably high on charm and energy for such a normally anemic genre. Richard’s arrangements keep everything on its feet, with ever cascading harmonies and jazzy rhythms and lots of fun dynamics. And then there’s Karen, brought to the forefront as the band’s “lead singer” – her mournful lower range turns opener “We’ve Only Just Begun” from well-written fluff into one of the most heartbreaking singles of the entire 1970s. The vocals are the show here, and not just Karen’s famous leads  – Richard takes an occasional line, and gets an entire tune to himself; their trading off lends a communal spirit they’d lose on later records. And of course, throughout the show, masterfully buttery harmonies bump the arrangements up into heavenly spheres. The consistency and professionalism at play here surprised me when I first heard the record, expecting filler-y padding surrounding the famous singles. Yet, original album tracks like the weirdo jazzy Britpop “Mr. Guder” and the epic almost proggy album closer “Another Song” showcase a major Brian Wilson/underground pop influence, and the album has consistent flow and contour. There’s a big difference between Bacharach pop and schmaltz; only later would the band threaten to cross the line in the wrong direction. Here they’re firmly rooted in classic brill building traditions, and tastiness abounds. I don’t mean to go to far though – this is, of course, pure soft pop – not going to make you throw away your Rolling Stones records any time soon – but it’s GREAT soft pop, creative and inspired and skillfully conveyed.


CARPENTERS

B+

With the big success of the previous album’s singles, the band expectedly moved in an even more Karen-dominated direction, and they ended up with two more gigantic singles that Karen-dominate this record. Unfortunately, they dominate to such a degree that they overshadow nearly every other track on here. This a prime showcase of “singles plus filler” syndrome, albeit it’s all very professional and lovely filler.  The goofy nerdy suburban Carpenters are already fading, soon to be phased out by a full on 70s schmaltz-pop band without the old bandcamp charisma. It hasn’t happened yet – Richard still manages to sing a few psych-poppy novelty numbers, and the arrangements are consistently gorgeous, with lush vocals cascading all over the place. But this is ballad heavy, and a bit too prim and proper for its own good. It’s also too professional for its own good, with each side opener a major Karen show-stopper and that jazzy “Free Design” vibe almost absent. It seems either an A&R hawk with a gold chain necklace whispered in Richard’s ear, or else the siblings understood what was expected of them. I’m not nearly as convinced by this record as I am by its two surrounding sisters. The band’s charming variety show element here is suffocated by too many “Close To You”-type piano songs. There’s also a lengthy Bacharach medley at the end of the record. A Bacharach MEDLEY! A silly choice that drags down the proceedings, for sure, though immaculately arranged and performed! Flaws aside, we know what REALLY matters here! The motherfucking singles! First, “Rainy Days And Mondays,” another big ol’ Paul Williams/Roger Nichols composition and another #1 hit for the kids. Karen brings in her tragic lower range, Richard arranges the Dickens out of the backing tracks, and the Wrecking Crew musicians destroy (as far as you can destroy in adult contemporary music). Everybody knows this song, and many people probably claim to hate it – but they perhaps haven’t actually sat and LISTENED to the thing as a record, basing their opinions mostly on its incidental life incursions via radio or movies. The best track, though, and arguably the all time great Carpenters record, this time courtesy of the late great Leon Russell with Bonnie Bramlett (of B & Delaney): “Superstar,” with its glorious small-big verse-chorus dynamics, insanely catchy “Don’t You Remember You Told Me You Loved Me Baby?” hook, Karen’s awesome doubled vocal, the simple but perfect horn hook, more great Wrecking Crew playing…it’s just a classic era-defining track. The singles make the album worth your time, even though you can obviously get ’em on hits collections – otherwise this is a bit of a disappointment.


A SONG FOR YOU

A

They’re not known as an album band, and that’s understandable – mostly dealing in “interpretations” of famous material, big singles and lesser tracks fighting for space, the band seemed to be ever-crafting their famous “Greatest Hits” album rather going for the canon with an album proper  This record, however, is their biggest bid for album-band status, their “Dark Side Of The Moon,” if you will, which you probably won’t! Richard’s craft peaked here, with brilliant arrangements and song choices throughout. Karen never again sounded this lovely and commanding. Here we get all sides of the band: lush pop ballads, goofy novelty songs, jazzy artsy songs, Paul Williams and Leon Russell tunes (plus a Carole King tune!) The flow is carefully considered, Hal Blaine and Joe Osborne wreck crew all over the place, the strings and vocals butter it all up into a lush supreme. The singles aren’t as massive this time, but they’re great! “Goodbye To Love” famously included a big ugly fuzz guitar solo, which horrified the band’s army of fans, as if Richard and Karen were pandering to the evil rock Gods. Looking back, it’s a great move – the ballsiest of the band’s career – and it’s a good single to boot! More famous: “Top Of The World,” a gentle country pop tune with a memorable electric piano figure and unbelievably catchy chorus. The truth is: EVERY track on here works, and nothing feels like filler. Richard’s stupid novelty number about being a great piano player — it’s hilariously silly and fun! As is the “Intermission” about going to the bathroom. They were injecting playfulness into their big masterpiece! Good kids, these ones. The Carole King cover – “It’s Going To Take Some Time” – destroys King’s own boring stripped down version (This record, BTW, is miles beyond Carole’s post-Tapestry work). My vote for most underrated Carpenters track closes out the album: “Road Ode,” a jazzy funky huge-chorus pop jam of an ilk not many realize this band was throwing onto their records. The Leon Russell title track sports a slow burning arrangement and a classic Karen vocal, and though it may not be the definitive version of the song, it’s certainly a worthy interpretation. Thus, the great Carpenter full-length.


NOW AND THEN

C

Here we go:  the first Carpenters record to justify their corn-dog reputation. It’s a major crash and burn from which the duo would never really recover, a full on immersion into excessive 70s crud with nary a trace of the old crafty pathos. There is exactly one classic on here – one of the last truly classic tracks in the catalog: the glorious “oldies” anthem, “Yesterday Once More,” with its unforgettable harmonized shall-la-la, woh-o-o-o chorus and big nostalgic Karen vocal. It’s one of the great original Carpenter/Bettis compositions. Richard’s arrangement skills are still mostly healthy throughout the album, and the siblings sound like they’re having a grand ol’ time on many of the tracks. But there’s a minor problem: the tracks stink. Actually, there’s a major major problem. It’s the rest of the B side, following the aforementioned classic, entirely devoted to an “oldies”medley, sorta like a lame cousin to Rundgren’s soul medley on “A Wizard, A True Star.” It’s the equivalent of an extended informercial for an oldies CD collection, tunes like “One Fine Day” and “Johnny Angel” done up in cottage cheese 70s prom arrangements, interrupted by a not-funny mock-radio-announcer (who was apparently the guitar player). This is bad taste at its least tasteful, and makes up nearly half the album. If the A-side had some whoppers I might forgive the lapse, but the A-side is arguably even less inspired. The album opens with vomit-inducing “Sing,” an insipid children’s novelty song and one of the band’s bigger hits. In the context of Sesame Street, it’s cute. In the context of a real classic pop album, and gussied up with a children’s choir, it’s gross. The only other decent tracks – Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade” and Randy Edelman’s “I Can’t Make Music” – show signs of the old spirit, but pale miserably in comparison to the best of the previous 3 records. Thus, all good things must pass, and thus did pass (mostly) the good things on Carpenters records.


HORIZON

B-

A step in the right direction – putting the emphasis back squarely on epic melancholic Karen-sung ballads. Boredom is the main problem here. There’s certainly no progression to the band’s sound, though that’s likely not at all what fans were looking for. Richard’s vocals are almost entirely relegated to wall of sound backups, and he now seems to be serving as Karen’s arranger/A&R man rather than proper “band” member. Basically all of the fun cutesy jazzy material from the earlier records has been forgone here in favor of ultra-serious balladry. Obviously Karen’s voice was the show by this point, and this was a slick commercial operation intent on giving people what they wanted. No more drumming or joking around for this gal: she’s a SERIOUS singer now, approaching diva status, groomed for the big stages and the big paychecks. Of all the band’s full-lengths, this one is most intent on sustaining a dark depressed mood, interrupted only by a silly but expertly put together “Please Mr. Postman” cover that sounds like an outtake from the previous album. The mood strikes one immediately with the bookends “Aurora” and “Eventide,” darkly orchestrated snippets fit for the sappiest of Broadway stages. Karen sings in her low register, beckoning the listener into her embrace, the listener likely holding a vacuum from Sears and wearing a sweater with a dolphin on it. No song on here hits me incredibly hard, but it’s all well handled and nothing sounds particularly distasteful. The closest thing to a classic is the cover of Neil Sedaka’s “Solitaire,” one of those big Richard arrangements swirling melodramatically around his sister’s voice as she nails every syllable. Oddly enough, the band’s Eagles “Desperado” cover works fine as a sappy ballad, perhaps even better than the original – which isn’t saying much to my ears. Nobody needs this record aside from massive fans – everything on here is better on the early albums, which is true of all post-73 Carpenters. But of their later records, this is one of the highlights.


A KIND OF HUSH

C-

A spectacularly fitting album title for a spectacularly boring album. Uninterested in moving an inch beyond his patented formula, Richard chose an oddly lifeless set of adult pop covers to share space with a few unmemorable originals. Everything is once again totally professional and immaculately arranged, though the youthful excitement and charm have now been completely sucked out of this machine. Karen sings everything with typical flair, but the band sounds like generic MOR  at this point – they’re exactly as I imagined them to be before examining the early records. Just like on “Horizon,” they stick to soupy ballads – aside from the ridiculously out of place comedy number “Goofus” (which falls flat where the earlier novelty tunes never did), everything drips with sticky stuff. Two of the only highlights open each album side, like a proper piece of product. The decent title track sports a memorable melody and heavenly 70s arrangement, and “I Need To Be In Love” is a Carpenter/Bettis tune with one of those big epic double-tracked Karen choruses, an OK track clearly pushing to be another “We’ve Only Just Begun” but lacking the emotional core and gorgeous melody of the earlier classic. By many accounts, Richard was zonked on Meds, with Karen starting to deal with her own demons around this time – so one has to imagine they just popped this out for a hungry record label. But this is also where the band loses me as a remotely serious musical force – the album cover presents the kids as the dorkiest band on the planet, and inside the sleeve was this 34 minute LP that closed with a cover of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” Simply: Yuck!


PASSAGE

C+

Hands down the strangest record in the catalog. Richard was either doing too much drugs, or not nearly enough, as this is a bewilderingly daft and random set of non-originals. 8 songs, every one of them representing a different style – this comes off like the most out of touch Vegas review imaginable. Each side of the original LP is set up as follows: 3 pop songs followed by an epic 7 or 8 minute showstopper. Let’s talk about the epics first, as they define the record and any discussions it might provoke. Most famously, the album ends with a cover of Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” originally a tongue in cheek pop opera not far removed from early 10cc or Todd Rundgren. Faithful is the Carpenters’ version, but played so straight it’s hard to tell whether Richard got the joke or not: clearly the original production was meant as pop parody. Hearing Karen’s perfect voice sing about Aliens with immaculate crystal clear 70s pop production isn’t quite the same as hearing warped power pop Canadians do it on an album full of experimental pop theater. That being said, it’s probably the most ambitious and quirky track the siblings ever attempted, and worth hearing at least once! On the other hand, the 8 minutes of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” hugely orchestrated and complete with the theatrical recitative surrounding it, may be the most egregious misstep in the entire Carpenters catalog. It’s awful, through and through – I actually like “Evita” a lot, but this interpretation adds nothing to it, and it’s so out of place here. It’s borderline offensive. LUCKILY – the rest of the album is actually quite enjoyable! Groovy opener “B’Wana She No Home” lets the session players stretch out beyond normal Carpenters regulations, and pop gem “All You Get From Love Is A Love Song” should have been a way bigger hit. The ABBA-esque “Sweet Sweet Smile” couldn’t be cuter, and it’s produced with a 70s glam-pop aesthetic I wish these kids had used more often! Overall, a confused and confusing record – a mess, really, but a rather fascinating one, with some winning tracks! Raise it a half grade if you care – but any record with that terrible ”Evita” cover can’t really reside in B territory.


MADE IN AMERICA

C

The final Carpenters album (before Karen’s death) finds the duo timidly pushing into the future – synth pop and new wave colorings crop up without much affecting the typical Carpenters formula.  By this point, too many adult contemporary bands already sounded like the Carpenters, and the originators just seem bland and faceless. As far as I understand, Karen was incredibly ill while tracking this thing. She still sounds great, but there isn’t really a showstopper, nor does anything resonate like the old epics. There are only two Carpenter/Bettis originals on here, one of which is possibly the best track on the record, the other almost certainly the worst. Opener “Those Good Old Dreams” takes us back to the country pop stylings of “Top Of The World,” with a powerful chorus melody and shimmering arrangement. It’s a great way to kick off the record, and points towards a reinvigorated band. At the album’s end we get “Because We Are In Love (The Wedding Song,)” quite possibly the worst piece of melodramatic orchestrated pap ever released by the band in Karen’s lifetime. The lyrics make me cringe, but I’m happy to report that this is the FIRST time I openly cringed while listening to a Carpenters record! They have class, these purveyors of 70s suburban music. In between are a buncha covers ranging in quality. “I Believe You” is a near Carpenters classic, and “(Want You) Back In My Life Again” is tasty cheesy 70s dance pop. But “Beechwood 4-5789” is another forced attempt at a 50s novelty track, and single “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” is a not tasty cheesy 70s dance pop! Overall, this ain’t a bad way for the band to bow out, but it’s still very much late-period Carpenters and adds very little to their legacy.


KAREN CARPENTER

Karen’s solo album was never released in her lifetime, rejected by the label and hugely criticized by brother Richard. Phil “Boring But Very Professional” Ramone produced the sessions, and he decided to turn Karen into a fluffy sultry R&B/Pop dance-y late-70s schlock singer. Nobody involved seems to understand what made her so great, and there’s barely one memorable or distinct moment on the entire platter. So that means Richard and the label were correct in their estimation at the time. However, this IS totally professional and acceptable commercial crap, certainly no worse than most of the bologna flooding the market at the time. “Still In Love With You” is fun: Karen singing a guitar driven New Wave pop rocker in the Blondie vein. Had the entire album sounded like that track, it would have a major reason for existing, as Richard would NEVER produce a track with that sorta instrumentation or vocal delivery. But most of the other tunes ride session player disco backing tracks and dull melodies – plus Karen sounds bored (maybe she was too sick? Or Phil wanted her to under-perform to correct her schmaltzy reputation?) A couple tracks are written by Rod Temperton of Michael Jackson and Heatwave fame – but the hooks certainly don’t hit like ‘Off The Wall.” Her cover of ‘Still Crazy After All These Years” sticks out, but mostly to remind us how many billion times better a songwriter is Paul Simon than anybody else involved. So if you want a great example of why Richard deserves more credit than he gets, look no further: same singer, way less exciting production and song selection and performances, and practically no charm.


RICHARD CARPENTER – “TIME”

Richard’s only major solo record came out years beyond Karen’s death, and sports quite possibly the lamest album cover in rock history. Just look it up. This is the man’s synth poppy 80s Beach Boys-y tribute record, not at all far removed from what Jeff Lynne was doing in the early 80s, and I can only assume Richard knew about those records. But – he called his record “Time,” so maybe he didn’t know about ELO’s “Time,” which is a much much much better version of this kinda pop album. I’ll grant the man this: he has’t lost his ability to arrange pretty harmonies and keep things tight and professional. And his choice of keyboard sounds could have been a LOT worse, which isn’t to say he isn’t using the kind of DX-7 keyboard sounds associated with utter 80s cheese here and there. But this is hardly worth the time of anybody who isn’t a major fan of the original band – it’s ultimately just forgettable and corny 80s pop.

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