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Carpenters apologist

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Must Hear This Album

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So I've been a Carpenters "apologist" since junior high in the early 1980's, debating with friends about why Carpenters are great and worthy of their respectful place in rock-and-roll / pop music history. Recently, I compiled for a friend a list of songs that I believe outline the duo's excellence. While not, necessarily, their "best" work, I believe this collection demonstrates the sibling's artistic strengths and contributions to popular music, writ large. I'd be interested to hear other songs you might include in your ultimate Carpenters playlist.

Carpenters collection.

“At their most inspired, Carpenters seem a world unto themselves, immune to the hip upheavals around them, pursuing a sound of poignant sweetness, tinged with yearning. It’s a kind of music that’s never been duplicated and remains a pleasure to hear.” - All Music Guide

“At first [Carpenters’] songs seem banal and manipulative and overly sentimental. They gain a new kind of depth as we’ve learned how Karen Carpenter suffered. There’s a real sadness, and the voice gets all the more beautiful as you find out. You listen to it, and you can’t stop.” - Todd Haynes

A Song For You. Has everybody covered this Leon Russell tune? The siblings present the song in their signature style spiced with a little jazz. It’s the closest thing that comes to a “rock song” on an album that was already two albums into the duo’s monopoly of Billboard’s charts in the early 1970’s. The Russell cover isn’t as unexpected a song choice from the siblings as you might expect, as they delivered the definitive version of Russell’s “Superstar” a year earlier and up to then had covered songs written by the likes of rock luminaries, Lennon-McCartney and Neil Young, among others. By 1972, rock critics collectively dismissed the pair’s contributions and largely ignored this exceptional album track.

We’ve Only Just Begun. We were talking a few months back about parallels between the Carpenter siblings and the Wilson siblings. Beyond the inner turmoil, familial dysfunction, and mental illness common with the two families, they also shared some a few good things, like songwriters. In his 2011 essay for the music blog, “Then Play Long,” Marcello Carlin noted the parallels, “…the Beach Boys connection is deep; Tony Asher, the Pet Sounds lyricist, had originally been approached to compose the lyrics to a Crocker Citizens Bank ad, but fell ill and recommended that Paul Williams take over and articulate the music of Roger Nichols.” So this monster hit song started out as a television commercial for Crocker Bank that Richard saw one night; he immediately (and correctly) predicted it a perfect song for his sister and went to work recording it for the Close To You album. The song went on to become the sibling’s signature tune and is one of the most representative of the duo’s style.

Road Ode. A stark mediation on celebrity and life on the road (written on tour in 1971 by Carpenters band members after a concert at Southern Illinois University), the song hinted at the sibling’s disappointing personal lives and foreshadowed the tragedy that lie ahead…

Mr. Guder. Written by Richard and go-to lyricist and college buddy, John Bettis (who later penned the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” Madonna’s “Crazy For You,” and the theme song from the horrific 80’s TV sitcom, “Growing Pains,” among other things) about their former boss at Disneyland, where they had jobs as street musicians in the mid-60’s, this is one of my favorite Carpenters tracks. The lyrics are snarky and rebellious, while the vocal arrangements are upbeat, jazzy, and reminiscent of some of The Beach Boys best songs (according to Richard, The Beach Boys, Burt Bacharach, and The Beatles are Carpenters’ biggest influences; all three are apparent on this one).

Baby It’s You. Recorded first by the Shirelles (Hot 100, #8) and The Beatles, this Burt Bacharach composition could have been another hit single had it been released to radio (thinking the Close To You album had maxed-out in sales in 1971, A&M Records pressured the duo to produce a new “sellable” product by the fall of the year, so no further singles were pulled from the album…too bad for early 70’s AM radio…).

Let Me Be The One. Having a smash hit with “We’ve Only Just Begun,” by the third album, the duo actively sought-out Paul Williams compositions for hits, and “Let Me Be The One” was strongly considered as a first-single off the sibling’s self-titled LP. Richard has noted, over time, that he regrets not releasing this one as a single, as he believes it would have easily been another top-5 hit in 1971. I’m inclined to agree with his assessment. This version is a rehearsal take from the studio sessions, with Karen delivering an exemplary lead vocal for the band to hear while they were laying down the instrumental tracks.

Maybe It’s You. Another by Carpenter and Bettis, the song was one of the first songs written by the songwriting duo with Karen’s lower-register in mind, and I’ve always thought it would have been another hit from the million-selling Close To You album, had it been released as a single. It’s a rare, early song that wasn’t overwhelmed by the multi-harmonied production so often chided by Carpenters critics (that I loved; as if you can have too much frosting on your cake…).

This Masquerade. While this song is a perfect vehicle for Karen’s lower register, I’m including it mostly because of her exceptional drumming, as noted by session drummer and journalist, Rod Fogarty in his 2001 article for Modern Drummer, “Karen lays down a Latin rhythm that can only be described as elegantly hip. With a stick and a brush, she weaves an almost ethereal groove. Hi-hat accents and an uncluttered clave offer a textbook example of musical and creative drumming. Towards the end, she plays some fills that break up the time and are phrased in a very personal manner.” I remember in junior high, whenever I would hear Sade’s first hit single, “Smooth Operator” on the radio (it was ubiquitous on the radio in 1984), my ear kept thinking the first few drum licks were “This Masquerade.” I’ve always wondered if they lifted the phrasing from Karen on this song.

Jambalaya (On The Bayou). This Hank Williams song was covered by Carpenters and released as a single in Japan and the UK, where it reached #12 in the pop charts. While I anticipate it makes country purists (like my father) cringe, there’s much to love about the duo’s version, suggesting Karen’s voice was well-suited to the “country-politan,” “Nashville Sound,” vis-à-vis Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, and Patti Page.

(A Place To) Hideaway. A perfect song for the siblings’ old-fashioned style, this sentimental song was written by Randy Sparks, the founder of the New Christy Minstrels and author of the equally mawkish 1970’s wedding standard, “Today.”

Reason To Believe. You’re familiar, no doubt, with the version by the song’s author, Tim Hardin, and you’re also familiar with the popular Rod Stewart hit version, but on Carpenters second album, they were still attempting to connect with current rock-and-roll stylings, and this song is a nod to their appreciation of folk-rock and country music (as mentioned earlier, I’ve often wondered, especially in light of their “surprise” top-ten country hit, 1977’s Juice Netwon-penned, “Sweet, Sweet Smile,” how Carpenters might have fared as country artists).

Desperado. Also along the country vein: When Richard heard this on Eagles’ 1973 album of the same name, he immediately identified it as a perfect song for Karen to sing. He was right. In fact, I think theirs is the definitive version. While never issued as a single, this perennial Eagles favorite was featured on the duo’s underperforming (and underrated), 1975 album, Horizon.

Superstar. Richard discovered this song not from Joe Cocker’s classic live album, Mad Dogs And Englishmen, but from The Late Show with Johnny Carson, with Bette Midler performing it as a stripped-down torch song. While the suggestive lyrics (“I can hardly wait just to sleep with you again”) had to be adjusted for his baby-sister, Carpenter’s arrangement retained the sexual tension of an obsessed fan and remains a Carpenters classic, eventually being inducted into the both the Grammy Hall of Fame and the “Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame” song lists.

I Can’t Make Music. Granted, I probably shouldn’t include this song on a CD where I’m trying to make a case for Carpenters greatness, but regardless of the title, the song perfectly showcases the best aspects of the Karen’s singing. No multi-layered harmonies here, just Karen.

All Of My Life. Legend has it that this is the song that first put Karen’s remarkable vocals on everyone’s radar. Originally, Karen was exclusively the group’s drummer, but Richard pushed her to the microphone in a last-ditch effort to score a recording contract with the fledgling (and long-defunct) “Magic Lamp Records.” When famed bassist, Joe Osborne, heard Karen sing this song in his studio, he knew she was going to be a star. Their “Magic Lamp” acetates stiffed, but these were the recordings that made their way to Herb Alpert, at A&M Records, who was immediately taken by the 19 year-old singer and signed the brother-sister duo to a recording contract in 1969.

Aurora and Eventide. This two-part song bookends the duo’s 1975 album, Horizon, and is a prime example of the type of songs Richard wrote with his sister’s low alto in mind. The words, written by John Bettis, are characteristically maudlin. These are exquisite vocals from an artist at the height of her powers, before physical abuse and ipecac-induced vomiting started to weaken her range.

One More Time. Taken from the 1976 album, A Kind Of Hush, I think this song perfectly captures Karen’s inner-turmoil and horrific self-destruction (was there ever a period of “good times” in her tragically short life?). Karen Carpenter was single-handedly committed to ending her life, both starving her body of essential nutrients, but also reportedly assaulting her frail and already compromised system with laxatives, ipecac, and thyroid medicine, to speed up her normal metabolism. Autopsy reports estimated that the singer’s heart had been, literally, a ticking/beating, time bomb, suggesting her survival until early 1983 was, solitarily, due to luck and strong genetics.

The following are included for documentary purposes:

Someday. Taken from their debut album, this Richard Carpenter/John Bettis tune is perfectly crafted for Karen’s then-husky voice. I love this lesser-known debut album, as it serves as a snapshot of a young artist literally finding her voice. On this album, it’s easy to hear the young singer working out the logistics surrounding what would become one of the best-known voices of her generation. A bit clumsy and warbled in places, Karen’s vocals on this song are endearing, innocent, and tender without being over-the-top. Can you think of an artist out today with such innocence (maybe UK’s Rumer, who is often compared to Carpenter)?

Goodnight. This version of The Beatles classic lullaby features a full choral background and was recorded live on a soundstage during a U.S. Army radio interview as the duo were promoting their breakthrough single, “Close To You.” I’ve included it mostly because it features Karen’s vocals so prominently and is another snapshot of a performer figuring out how to best use her instrument. Again, clumsy in places, there are moments on this recording when you hear what would become the Karen Carpenter sound.

(I Want You) Back In My Life Again. Taken from their 1981 “comeback” album, Made In America (indeed, the album included their last top 20 pop hit, “Touch Me When We’re Dancing,” which was later covered by country band, Alabama, who took the song to #1 on the country charts in 1986), this horrific song is likely the course the duo would have taken had Karen lived and not destroyed her vocal cords. And as much as I’d like to think the Carpenters would have eventually regained their musical footing, had Karen survived, I strongly suspect they would have gone the way of Kenny Loggins and Air Supply: forgettable footnotes in the top 40 canon. So in many ways, Karen’s untimely death may be the only thing that rescued the duo’s sublime, early-70’s pop music from ultimate obscurity.

Now. Recorded in the fall of 1982, just months before her death, I include this track, because it was Karen’s last recorded vocal and is another “lead-vocal,” never intended for public consumption, but recorded to give the session musicians something to reference as they laid down their respective parts. After her death, Richard added the background instrumentation/vocals and released it on the cash-in 1983 album, Voice Of The Heart. I include it because I think it shows the damage she’d done to her voice, especially noticeable on the higher notes, which seem tentative and airy, unlike the rich, robust tones of which she was capable just a few years earlier (For a point of reference, re-listen to the “lead vocal” on “Let Me Be The One.” The difference is stunning.).
 

Mike Blakesley

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You left off their all time best tune (in my humble opinion anyway), "Yesterday Once More." It showcases the Carpenter/Bettis songwriting talent and is just an overall great production and performance.

My other favorite and also missing is "Goodbye to Love." Another original, and a groundbreaking tune in that it introduced the "hard rock sound" to pop balladry, which was pretty much unheard of before.

Also, I think any list that's trying to make a Carpenters fan out of a non-fan should include "Close to You." It was their breakthrough hit, after all, and is one of their most beloved tunes and for good reason.

Having said all that, it's pretty hard to make a list like this that will stand up to scrutiny by other fans; if I was compiling my own all-time Carpenters best list, probably at least half of your list wouldn't make my list. But the three tracks mentioned above are essential in my book. (Which of course is why they're on just about every Carpenters compilation out there -- which may be why you left them off your list.)
 

Must Hear This Album

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Good points, all, Mike. This particular friend is a big fan of early rock-and-roll and country, and my song selections were definitely informed by that. Had I been talking with someone who was into a different era/genre, I imagine I would have a completely different list, altogether. Interestingly, and on a somewhat related sidebar, I'm often surprised by how many R&B / hip-hop artists (e.g., Jody Watley, Luther Vandross, Tonex) point to R&K as an influence.

Additionally, I can't argue the three songs you listed as nothing less than "essential" to the Carpenters canon; CTY and GTL, in particular, rank in my top 10. Thanks for weighing-in.
 

Jeff

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It grieves me listening to Now and You're Enough for the reasons stated above. While lovely songs and a pleasant delivery I've always heard the "tentative and airy" element to Karen's voice here. Maybe I put my head in the sand but I'd like to think that with sufficient rest and care the rich tones that only she possessed would resurface upon recovery. Oddly enough Richard commented that many of her solo efforts were recorded in another key thereby making her sing upper range. On these last 2 recordings from April of '82 RC the producer has her singing just that. One of his chief complaints about Phil Ramone's productions was just that. While I appreciate each of Karen's readings and dynamics I must admit I agree with the "money is in the basement" comment.
 

A&M Retro

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Amazing how we all hear things differently. I personally think Karen sounds BETTER on "Now" and "You're Enough" than she did on "Made In America".

She seems to be getting away from the 'breathy' approach she used on songs like "Strength of a Woman" and "Those Good Old Dreams", and sounds much more 'present' on the two tracks from April, 1982. True, she doesn't sound as rich as she did in the early days. That being said, I still think she sounds damned good....especially considering her debilitated state AND the fact that these are work leads.

I would love to hear the other two tracks recorded during these sessions (even though Richard apparently sings 'lead' on one of them).

Lastly, I've spent my life NOT apologizing for the Carpenters, and trying to spread the good word about the richness of their music to non-fans. I've taken some serious heat through the years, but I don't think that quest will ever end.
 

Must Hear This Album

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Great comments, all! Many thanks. And for the record, by "apologist," I meant one who offers an argument in defense of something controversial. Oh the comments I endured when wearing my fan club t-shirt in high school (which I wore all the time, nonetheless...).
 

A&M Retro

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I think it was John Bettis who described Carpenters as the ultimate 'alternative' band in the '70's. If you think about it, it's very true. They totally went against the norm, and had an audience ready and waiting for them.
 

Must Hear This Album

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I think it was John Bettis who described Carpenters as the ultimate 'alternative' band in the '70's. If you think about it, it's very true. They totally went against the norm, and had an audience ready and waiting for them.

So true. And it's interesting, politically, how artists are "selected" for the R&RHOF (recent news stories of other "alternate" acts, like Randy Newman, who was inducted over the weekend, got me to thinking...). It seems that R&K were fairly insular, even when they were most active in the early-mid 70's, not doing a great deal of networking within the music business, which seems to have hurt their chances of induction to the HOF. Other than Herb Alpert and a few luminaries in the business (e.g., some major, like Phil Ramone, and some minor, like Peter Cetera, ONJ, etc.), their circle was fairly small. And I think that was intentional on their part, but possibly short-sighted. I wonder what might have happened to their "rock cred" had they sought out a connection/friendship with Jan Wenner, for example, who seems to hold the keys for that exclusive club?
 
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