Perfect Sound Forever

Carpenters, Unironically

By Craig Kurtz
(June 2013)

Now and then, it has been an exercise in hip alignment to either gainsay or celebrate the Carpenters depending on era, genre, and dedication to irony. However, I would like to consider them as I did then, during their heyday--as music. Funny, in the 70s I experienced, there wasn't any sense of otherness to Carpenters hits; when they came on the AM stations in the waterbed-equipped vans, even the most seasoned stoners would simply nod and hum along. Crossover--and inventing adult contemporary, deservedly. Skeptics are welcome to a simple spot check: compare Richard Carpenter's piano fills with Carole King's on "It's Going to Take Some Time" (not to mention the snazzy flute solo he arranged). Then contrast Karen Carpenter's take on "Desperado" against Linda Ronstadt's. Undeniable merit. Sugar schlock, sure; and supercharged with vitamins. Almost always, with the Carpenters, the music came first, and they engaged it, honestly.

Offering, the first LP, is certainly their least characteristic. The duo that best represents 70s AM soft rock started off with a 60s album. Not brilliant, not bad, just typical in its characteristic eccentricities--interesting and loaded with Richard Carpenter compositions (lyrics usually by his long-term partner John Bettis). "Invocation" serves up Simon-and-Garfunkel chamber harmonies, "Bendiction" invokes Irving Berlin in heaven, and underneath all the wholesomeness lurks a little Brian Wilson-esque yearning. "All of My Life" starts off quintessentially 1962, but the coda is surprisingly, expansive, clearly the work of a composer with a lot of ideas and energy. The intended single, "Your Wonderful Parade," besides demonstrating Carpenter's taste for vaudevillian spoken-word bits, is mid-Sixties go-go, a clattering confection of Jimmy Webb genuflection that would have well served the 5th Dimension. (Indeed, Joe Osborne, the bubbling bassist on "Let the Sunshine In," is all over the Carpenters sessions and history.) "All I Do" is fusion, distortion and all, jazzy beats nonetheless, evincing a study of contemporary (Zombies) and classic (Lambert, Henricks & Ross) hipsters. Everyone knows the pensive arrangement of "Ticket to Ride"--clever, high-calorie, compelling--but the surprise is "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing": brighter, but sharper, complete with a gnarly little electric piano solo. The best track, "Turn Away," recalls Richard Wright's Pink Floyd composition "Summer '68," only check the chords and tempo changes, it's far more creative, groovier, too.

As Richard Carpenter aptly stated in a 2009 interview: "There were so many things about that first album that I would have changed. But . . . it's creative, there's a lot of great vocal work, and one of the best things about it is it's so much a product of its time. It's so very sixties--experimental pop music."

The Carpenters get to business with their second LP, Close To You. Everyone has heard the title track, and in a million iconic contexts, rife with lifestyle; cue up a quick listen to the 1964 original (Dionne Warwick, arranged by Burt Bacharach) and get a fresh sense of Richard Carpenter's arranging skills. That he studied music at Yale doesn't mean he's better than most rock dudes; it just means he knows more, has more to draw from. One characteristic of this album that continued to characterize Carpenter orchestrations is, string cushioning and vocal overdubbing aside, a respect for sonic intimacy. Most tracks feature, in counterpoint to Karen Carpenter's dramatic reserve on lead, a solitary soloist (oboe, flute, harmonica) acting as orchestral ambassador. The Carpenters understood the high end. You hear the players in the studio. Interesting originals include "Crescent Moon," a downcast, relatively unembellished art song not unlike Judy Collins' work during the same era; "Mr. Guder," an anti-establishment lounge number (with baroquey harmonies); and "Another Song," jazz-rock tripping with astute interactions between both Carpenters (keys and drums) and their first-call hotshots (woodwinds). While "Help" isn't as radically reimagined as "Ticket to Ride," it's teenie-bopper power-poppy. It does bear noting they avoided obvious Beatle dreck; nice solo. "Reason to Believe" shows Karen Carpenter getting credible as a country singer; compared to so many other contenders, here is a reminder that she never overcooked her lyrics. Maybe she grew up listening to Peggy Lee. Certainly her brother was familiar with Les Paul and Mary Ford. Then there's "We've Only Begun," the essential wedding reception “now” sound for the era; the brass accents and rolling piano arpeggios remain alluring.

Following the runaway smash of "Close To You"--nothing like a #1, brother--their third album is where things get seriously professional. For better, and for wear and tear. As Richard Carpenter politely phrased it, "With the success of 'Close To You' and 'We've Only Just Begun' our schedule was not quite as relaxed as it had previously been and I did not have as much time to write or listen to material. Thankfully, I lucked into several very strong songs." And so, Carpenters is a classic recorded commodity of the time--hit songs and some middling material in between. But, what an opener: the first clutch of chords on "Rainy Days and Mondays" nicely sums up all the savvy in a Carpenters song: Eb chord to G Minor to Gm7b5/C#, then dropping stunningly to a C7(sus4) chord, it's the sort of progression jazz cats acknowledge as the goods, and the sort of riff that guitar shredders get busy on. "Let Me Be the One," also written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, has great kick; check the original by Jack Jones to appreciate how Richard Carpenter declutters the core of the composition. "Superstar," the Leon Russell standard, was first recorded (under the title "Groupie [Superstar]") as a soul burner by Delaney and Bonnie, then torchily by Rita Coolidge. While fans of those works will never prefer the Carpenters take, they should grudgingly concede Karen Carpenter meant and did no harm with her more reticent reading. "For All We Know" needs no introduction, it either paralyzes you or it don't, but the unorchestrated, unoverdubbed LP closer "Sometimes," it might be pointed out, is a Henry Mancini song and might have pointed toward a late-80s Carpenters; Richard Carpenter's delight on the keys is palpable. But, yeah, the three originals are conventional and the tightly edited Bacharach-David medley is too show-bizzy. Still--it got the hits.

Now it's summer '72. Nixon is on the campaign trail, vowing an end to the war, while McGovern counted on the '71 amendment lowering the voting age to 18 to play in his favor. Throughout this fractious time, Carpenters hits glowed from sedan dashboards while acknowledging the weather outside the air conditioning with their fourth album, A Song For You--"Bless the Beasts and the Children," flower-power in a wistful B flat; "Hurting Each Other," mid-60s boilerplate reconfigured as early-70s domestic psychology; and "It's Going to Take Some Time," previously mentioned, demonstrating that Richard Carpenter (auditing Tapestry's less-than-fruitful follow-up) was, in addition to his many roles, an A&R shark. Then, there's "A Song for You," the Leon Russell masterpiece (and infamous knuckle bender) with its 3 AM sax turn (by key Carpenter associate Bob Messenger); the original (more countrified) "Top of the World" (Carpenter and Bettis's first #1); and the grandiose "Goodbye to Love" (also Carpenter and Bettis) with its outrageous bumblebee lead (by longstanding Carpenters band member Tony Pelosa) and euphoric McCartneyesque coda. "I Won't Last a Day Without You" is another pining Williams-Nichols piece (later rerecorded with sharper guitar). Minor tracks are also interesting. Originals "Flat Baroque" and "Intermission" offer classical spoofs not unlike those found on Yes's Fragile. Meanwhile, slighter compositions such as "Road Ode" and "Piano Picker" redeem themselves with disciplined solos. And, throughout, Karen Carpenter's economical, sensitive drum work provides much of these recordings’ definition and refinement. Thirteen tracks, seven top 40 hits. Close to You is an adult contemporary Abbey Road. Something slick, aimed straight at the imagination. Unlike Sonny and Cher, who sadistically hired A-listers to play shrieking schlock, the Carpenters always approached their projects and session players with a respect that the genre then so often lacked. As much as radio gloss characterizes (perhaps hides) the Carpenters--and it's not outside the realm of possibility Close To You played in Joni Mitchell's limo on the way to her Court And Spark dates--strip this album down to its keyboard chords and lead vocals and you still have a meritorious, even emotionally gripping, listen.

Their fifth album Now & Then was another post-tour blaze of pressure--album cycles at that level of professionalism in the 70s ensured only the strong survive--yet it was, even more so than the predecessor, the technically polished, chromatically thoughtful post-Abbey Road production that almost everyone emulated in their own genres. "Sing," the opener, should have collapsed under its children-choir optimism, yet the melodic certitude highlighting Karen Carpenter's obvious sincerity and her counterpoint, blithely harmonized recorders (played by Tom Scott) was undeniable. Only a real Grinch could gainsay its charm--and Nixon himself rather fancied the Carpenters. Besides, a note-perfect rendition of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade" followed. Just one listen and you're ready to replace that silly nickel bag with a nice, sparkling scotch on the rocks. Then, there's another Carpenter-Bettis number, the irresistible "Yesterday Once More," with its arresting C#m chord shift into a C Augmented chord, demonstrating that Richard Carpenter, so shortly ago smartening up Williams and Bacharach melodies, was now composing his own Gershwin standards. Jeff Lynne must have loved that one; most of those chords went straight into the next three ELO albums. Then, there's the eccentric material: a short elevator instrumental ("Heather") nabbed from a Geritol commercial, a seditiously slick "Jambalaya" and, bombastically, the lengthy oldies AM medley, which, taking its aesthetic cue from In Living Color Silent Majority nostalgia (albeit with another wild guitar turn by Pelosa, here channeling Steely Dan) rather than back-to-roots reaction, performs far better than expected. If you want kitsch done right, bud, why settle for Pin Ups? Americans invented kitsch for chrissakes. After all, who but the USA to turn the moon into just another golf course? Richard Carpenter gets his most natural vocal on "Fun, Fun, Fun" while on "The End of the World" and "Johnny Angel" Karen Carpenter channels the entire Eisenhower pink Doris Day vibe to radiant effect. Essentially, Now & Then reaffirmed what most music consumers already knew: the Carpenters could handle almost any material with taste and originality. The accursed war was over but Watergate was breaking nationwide; some people responded by sending Alice Cooper's "No More Mister Nice Guy" up the charts, some voted in the Carpenters "Sing"--and, speaking from personal experience, some of us had enough dollars in our jeans to nab one of each. Why not? Both 45s, and acts, described the same America.

1974 came and went in a blaze of touring and substance abuse. No one gets exempt. Then Horizon, a fine enough commodity, but (excepting one track) lacking the elemental spark of unicity which previously characterized all Carpenters albums. Certainly, "Please Mr. Postman," high-caloric as it is (especially the solos), was backtracking (as Richard Carpenter later conceded). The other primary single, "Only Yesterday," suffers from a similar conservatism and predictability: it simply sounds like every prior Carpenters hit, condensed and pasteurized, with a discernible absence of fresh-take fervor in the solos. "Desperado," previously mentioned, is not a particularly spectacular arrangement (and the inclusion of Jim Gordon, a definitely heavy drummer, is somewhat distracting), but Karen Carpenter aces the vocal. "I Can Dream, Can't I?", featuring Billy May and his legendary band, works better in theory than on tape. Again, there's some asomatous loss of magic in the take. Over on side two, "Solitaire" is a classic Neil Sedaka tearjerker, with the "lead sister" taking care of business (with a slightly wider range than usual). But it's "Happy" (written by Peluso) that really gets things going with, sparkly quad guitars, sweet oboe, felicitous percussion (freeze-dried handcaps included) and--finally, a bona fide surprise--space-age synthesizer runs, complete with a choice octave ascent; this is Carpenters techno. But, that's about it--all of the Carpenter and Bettis entries fall a bit short on imagination, however lovingly they got buffed at the board. Ditto "Love Me for What I Am." Horizon, all in all, is pleasingly...ordinary. 200 dates throughout 1974--that kind of work takes its toll (and it's audible here); there's a reason the Beatles got out of that racket. Perhaps the Carpenters, like Alice Cooper, were out there just a little too long for their own good. Or maybe, like so much coming down, it was all Nixon's fault.

Then came 1976's A Kind of Hush, an album almost entirely lamented by Richard Carpenter, and it is, for the most part, lamentable. They're looking fairly strung out on the cover portrait. The title track, like the LP closer, "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" beats their peppy oldie formula to death. "Goofus," which was a choice Les Paul novelty, later done by Chet Atkins, should have yielded lite jazz magic, but, here, the tempo is too slow, the solos are too timid, and Karen Carpenter sounds unengaged, unfrivolous. Mainly though, however well sung, or at least prettily performed the album is, the primary problem with it is the songs are unspecial. Also, the arrangements are lush, homogeneous, uningenious. This what the heavy metal heathens said the first Carpenters albums sounded like: bland, rote, corny. Again, even more so, the originals are weighted with routine chord changes and workaday lyrics. A Kind of Hush is a tired band's tired album. Supposedly Karen Carpenter first-taked "Superstar"; the tracks here all sound like take 30. Production perfectionism taking the place of inspired music-making--such was the almost inevitable experience for so many troopers in that era.

The following LP, Passage, released in 1977, is something else altogether. Starting with the arty album cover, it is daring, it is extravagant, it is curious. Whatever missteps of zealousness occur, they are all worth the risk. Passage is conceivably the record ELP attempted to make with Works (vols. 1 and 2), only far listener-friendlier. "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," with its theatrical balcony preface, is jolting and utterly dramatic; it's positively huge. Passage was one of those ultra-tracked audiophile albums record shops used to impress customers, the ones with the charge cards. Michael Franks' fusiony "B'wana She No Home," the album opener, is better yet, boasting Tom Scott charts and a sure, deft lilt. Karen Carpenter once again sounds like she's enjoying her work in the studio, and that's a reassuring lift to have back. Plus, Tony Peluso is clearly stimulated, sharp on his toes, to be lobbing riffs with Scott (who, fresh from his sessions on Steely Dan's Aja, was enjoying his hottest year). And, in a concession to Richard Carpenter's primary role as producer, there are two outsourced keyboard hotshots. Then, there's the seemingly insane reading--all seven minutes of it--of Klaatu's space anthem, "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft." By attentuating Klaatu's Beatles fixation and satisfying attention to harmonic detail, not to mention a bold flexing of orchestral muscle and another gnarly guitar turn, it biggers and betters the original; of course, it's still insane, and that's great. Perhaps wisely, Richard Carpenter gave composition a rest for this album, concentrating instead on repertoire acquisition, one of his strongest skills. Even the radio-ready contenders--"All You Get from Love Is a Love Song" (nice changes; swell solo) and "Sweet Sweet Smile" (fleet licks, proud beat) sound brighter, more energetic, than the last two albums, probably because the Carpenters have (re)accelerated their tempos. "Man Smart, Woman Smarter," a women's lib novelty hoedown (originally done by Harry Belefonte), is undoubtedly just dumb fun--but, who cares, everyone in the studio is packing a punch (including Leon Russell); with its extended zany jam-out, it's almost Rundgrenesque. Even a standard ballad, "I Just Fall in Love Again," appeals due to its earnest performance--and, it merits emphasis, due to the subcontracting of orchestral arranger Peter Knight (Days Of Future Past), also on board for the two epic tracks. In all, Passage is the artistic successor to Now & Then; perhaps it's a bit hipper. By '77, the prog dinosaurs couldn't pull this sort of indulgence off, but in the "easy listening" universe, this stuff was radical. A career high.

1981's Made In America is the final Carpenters album. It is a considerably calculated product, full of anticipated styles and sentiments, bookended by two Carpenter-Bettis originals, one a countryish shuffle, the other a Disneyesque ballad, neither eventful or memorable. The primary single, "Touch Me When We're Dancing," is generic adult contemporary, stuffed with modern Nashville flourishes, monolithic orchestration, and declining Scott saxophone work barely worthy of Letterman. "Beechwood 4-5789" is another callow oldie, dated by its 80s palm-muted "calypso" guitar, sounding like Blondie lite. Certainly, there are moments that are undeniably topnotch Carpenters--Karen Carpenter exercises a gorgeous lead on the otherwise unremarkable "I Believe You," for example, and there's Peter Knight's playful 50s arrangement of Bacharach and Bayer-Sager's "Somebody's Been Lyin'" to provide the album's standout--but an embarrassing synth-pop jingle like "(Want You) Back In My Life Again" suggests the Carpenters were attempting to trade their identities for a chart smash, which is regrettable (especially when the endeavor failed). Most other cuts are stock, professional, anonymous--everything Passage transcended; maybe when it's gone, it's just gone. Or who knows. The tragedy is that, in theory, the 80s rediscovery of the Great American Songbook, and its attendant freedom from the endless race for the next radio hit, should have been owned by these artists. Not that the Carpenters needed (or need) to prove anything; few recording acts have made as many hits, iconic sounds, and LP programs of high-concept comfort. In some ways, I consider the Carpenters the true heirs to the Beach Boys legacy: unapologetic post-war purveyors of middle-brow, middle-class optimism, escapism, and exceptionalism.

"Easy listening" that rewards listening: you don't need a thrift-shop wardrobe to approach the Carpenters, you don't need an avant-garbage cover version to rediscover the Carpenters, you can simply kick back--and dig it.

Also see our 2021 article on the Carpenters' Now and Then

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