Perfect Sound Forever

Carpenters Gold: 35th Anniversary Edition

A New Fan's Look, with Questions to Ponder
By Kurt Wildermuth
(April 2022)

Never did I think I'd write about the Carpenters. Seldom did I consider listening to them. Hardly did I care about them. Now here I am, a convert, a neophyte, about to honor this bygone sister-and-brother act.

Purveyors of pop and occasionally pop-rock and occasionally schlock, from California, they were Karen, the sometime drummer and major singer, and Richard, the keyboardist and minor singer. This piece goes out to those of you for whom their names aren't household. The rest of you, please go back to playing your cherished 45s of the Carpenters' "Close to You" and "Please Mr. Postman."

Officially they were Carpenters, the way the Ramones were officially Ramones (though the latter were not brothers). Stripping away the extraneous "the" was meant to make the name seem leaner, tougher, cooler. No one calls the duo Carpenters, though, just as no one calls the group Ramones. Both names stick on the tongue without the definite article.

Whether the Carpenters were cool has been an issue. Karen and Richard didn't look cool--they looked like religious fanatics or death-cult members--posed stiffly in an isolated spot on the cover of their first album, 1969's Offering. They didn't look cool--just pleasant and relaxed--sailing on the cover of that album's reissue, 1970's Ticket to Ride. Throughout the '70s and into the early '80s, these unassuming siblings seemed the embodiment of wholesome. Take a closer look, however, and you discover unexpected pockets of humor and weirdness. For example, side 1 of the original A Song for You LP, from 1972, ends with the half-minute track "Intermission." On it, the siblings' processed voices announce, "We'll be right back / After we go to the bathroom." So as you get up to flip the record, you're left with the mental image of porcelain or whatever else "go to the bathroom" conjures for you.

(Question to ponder in your idle hours: How did the supposedly squeaky-clean Carpenters get away with that bathroom humor? Would this joke have generated controversy if the words had been easier to make out?)

Let my story of encountering the Carpenters stand for serendipitous discoveries of music that reaches the listener at the right time, when it can speak to a need. As a child in the early '70s, I'd been a fan of the Partridge Family's TV show and records, then come to be embarrassed about liking the Partridges--I mean, come on, a rock and roll family, including the mom and little kids? Maybe that experience had left me wary. Like the Partridges, Captain & Tennille, and Tony Orlando & Dawn, the Carpenters seemed made-for-TV celebrities rather than musicians.

(Another question to ponder in your idle hours: The 1978 TV special The Carpenters . . . Space Encounters positions the duo as both celebrities and musicians. Richard seems comfortable in front of the camera but best suited to sitting at his keyboard. Karen--cute, elegant, and vivacious--gives indications that she might have succeeded at musical comedy. The show, a sci-fi cheesefest featuring Suzanne Somers and John Davidson as aliens learning about music by getting a capsule history of the Carpenters, is best appreciated as . . . a time capsule? a piece of Karen's puzzle?)

As a middle-aged man I can appreciate the craft in the Partridge Family's prefabricated pop as guiltlessly as I can enjoy the '60s girl groups, the Monkees, 1910 Fruitgum Company and similar bubblegum, the Bay City Rollers, ABBA, disco, and so on. And if that's your kind of music, if you live for electric piano and thumping bass and multitracked harmonies, if you wish more songs sounded like 10cc's "I'm Not in Love," then you need to hear the Carpenters. (One tie between them and the Partridge Family, by the way, is revered studio drummer Hal Blaine, who took over the kit as Karen transitioned to frontwoman.) But back then, while I no doubt heard the Carpenters' many hits on the radio, their music never really registered. At age 12 I was such a sucker for a hook that I bought the 45s of Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life," Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights," and Andrew Gold's "Lonely Boy"--radio-friendly unit shifters of 1977--but I never owned any Carpenters.

In the '80s, a friend, a fan of idiosyncratic hard stuff such as the Minutemen and the Soft Boys, recommended the Carpenters' 1973 collection The Singles: 1969-1973. I raised an eyebrow but never took the time to check it out. Nor was I swayed by the 1994 indie tribute compilation If I Were a Carpenter, most of whose contributors were too bland to care about. In the 2000s, a friend jettisoning physical media gave me his copy of the 2-CD set Carpenters Gold: 35th Anniversary Edition. This compilation was released in 2004, 35 years after the Carpenters signed to their one and only label, A&M Records. Although I could immediately hear why people consider Karen Carpenter a superlative vocalist, disc 1 left with me such sugar shock that I didn't make it to disc 2. "There's fine music here," I thought, "but it may not be for me." So the collection sat for a few years, full of potential.

Then in the August 2021 issue of Perfect Sound Forever, Robin E. Cook wrote an insightful appraisal of the Carpenters' Now & Then (1973), and her piece inspired me to revisit Carpenters Gold. Cook wrote: "Richard and Karen Carpenter stepped into the gulf between cool and square, mellow and edgy." Down the set came from the shelf. Out of the CD player went, I kid you not, Metallica.

(Another question to ponder: What pop-rock artist hits the sweet spot between the Carpenters and Metallica? Might it be the Ramones?)

From the start of disc 1, the opening of "Superstar," Carpenters Gold won me over. After years of political turmoil and pandemic storm and stress, the music's seeming purity, depth of feeling, and desire to please swept over like the most welcome wave. At that point I came to realize how many Carpenters songs I knew, even if I didn't know who they were by. Some I'd probably heard countless times in my local grocery store, where '70s soft-pop-rock hits are often on rotation. Others I'd absorbed, through inescapable exposure, during childhood. (Craig Kurtz lovingly conveys the Carpenters' ubiquity in his June 2013 Perfect Sound Forever survey of their original albums.)

Like all of the Carpenters' songs that reach me emotionally, "Superstar" works magic through its musicality, not its lyrics. Written by Bonnie Bramlett, the lyrics are from the perspective of an audience member who has fallen for a guitarist and laments this lost affair. The chorus goes

Don't you remember
You told me you loved me, baby
Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh baby
I love you, I really do

These lines sound far more significant when sung by Karen Carpenter than they look on the page. In either form, the scenario doesn't develop. The guitarist never returns. The protagonist feels bereft, and the Carpenters' version delivers that point in two low-key ways.

The first way is built into Leon Russell's music, in that despite the lover's sadness, the chorus rises from the comparatively somber verses. Because the tempo and melody lift, it actually feels celebratory when the singer asks, "Don't you remember . . . ?" The tension between what's being said and how it sounds suggests the hope rising within the downcast person, as though contemplating a rekindled romance, or at least a renewed connection, could make it happen. Credit Richard Carpenter with crafting an efficiently spare arrangement, where oboe conveys the isolation, bass and orchestration probe the situation during the verses, and horns punctuate the chorus like a group of imaginary friends.

The second way the recording works is through Karen's matter-of-fact delivery. Not for her the dramatic inhabiting of character; the melodramatic rises and falls along the register; the quirks, mannerisms, and even flaws that can seem like shorthand for authenticity. Karen quietly delivers the melody, but from the opening line, "Long ago and so far away," her pretty voice has an undertone that draws you like an undertow. How she achieves this underlying layer of somber woundedness beneath the song's glossy surface I leave to voice coaches, musicologists, psychologists, and puzzle solvers to explicate.

I'll offer just this about "Superstar": Like Billie Holiday but far less noticeably, she drags on the beat. She employs a touch of tasteful vibrato. She hints at soaring but doesn't soar, like a bird carefully controlling its flight not far from a target. The eerie sense I get is of a person behind the scenes, a person with knowledge of pain, using these one-dimensional, barely serviceable lyrics as a script, a vehicle for expression. She sees the goal in her mind's eye and tries to take you there.

Nearly always through Carpenters Gold, the lyrics don't matter, at least not nearly as much as the vocal and instrumental textures do. Case in point is the pathos Karen brings to the Carpenters' 1977 cover of the Canadian rock band Klaatu's "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft," a musical Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), parenthetically designated here as "The Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day" (which, as Richard explains in his liner notes to Gold, never existed). Who can resist singing along to the refrain, "calling occupants of interplanetary . . . most extraordinary . . . crap"? At the same time, who can resist this intricate track, with its march tempo, majestic layers of rock instrumentation and swirling orchestration, and multitracked background vocals? (Gold could be a textbook in the art of crafting background vocals.) Whatever Karen is singing--gibberish, the proverbial phone book, or an earnest entreaty to extraterrestrials--she means it, luxuriates in its sound, and turns it into an irresistible offer.

To get closer to what Karen does as a vocalist, consider what another vocalist doesn't do. On If I Were a Carpenter, the alternative rock mainstays Sonic Youth covered "Superstar." Karen was deceased by then (lost in 1983 to complications from anorexia nervosa), so we don't know what she'd have made of it. Richard reportedly didn't think much of it, and it's hard to imagine his entering into Sonic Youth's sound world or feeling that this version, so easy and disposable, added to the sneaky, massive original.

Atop a conventional rock recording, Thurston Moore's filtered voice delivers the spoken-word equivalent of a whisper, barely budging past a monotone, distanced from the narrator's emotional life in a way very distant from Karen's nuanced character sketch. It's as though Moore, a nonsinger, a noisemaker, omits the surface layer, the story, the dynamics, to present only the emptiness that Karen suggests. Simple dichotomies come to mind: New York attitude versus California professionalism, '90s alterna-punk jadedness versus '70s pop-rock sense of possibility.

Disc 1 of Carpenters Gold begins with the gateway drug of the original "Superstar" (really the one-two punch of it and a deceptively pretty ode to depressives, "Rainy Days and Mondays" . . . "Hanging around / nothing to do but frown"). It closes with the interstellar overdrive of "Calling Occupants." Between those points lies a journey of discovery, where the openminded listener takes the good with the great with the unfortunate.

To my ears, the unfortunate on disc 1 boils down to one cover: Hank Williams's "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)." Richard has placed this one after Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe," and the skeptical might take these tracks as reasons not to listen to the Carpenters. Can you say "gritless"? Can you say "inauthentic"? The listening's too easy. The Carpenters don't put much at stake in Hardin's folk song, and they take the Louisiana out of Williams's faux-Cajun romp, or they don't even realize it should be there. If that judgment seems harsh, take as evidence the flute solo, which to a fan of Williams's original can cause physical pain (and I say that as an admirer of flautists Herbie Mann and Ian Anderson at their best). The lyrics on both these covers register, paradoxically, because Karen might as well be singing gibberish or a phone book, so little does the meaning matter to her, and when you're singing about finding a reason to believe or going hog wild and having big fun, the meaning should matter.

To get why these tracks are Carpenters anomalies, consider an earlier song on disc 1: "Top of the World," for which Richard wrote the maddeningly catchy and seemingly timeless music. The lyrics, by John Bettis, find the singer

. . . on the top of the world
Looking down on creation . . .
Your love put me at the top of the world

Nothing's at stake because the work has been done--the bliss has been achieved and is being celebrated. Karen glories in conveying that state, and her infectious happiness helped make this wonder a huge hit, one of those inescapable '70s touchstones.

After the Williams clunker (an unexpected international chart-topper, Richard explains in his liner notes to Gold), lots of good stuff lays the red carpet right up to the feet of the next great thing. That great thing, a peak in the middle of disc 1, is "The Rainbow Connection." Previously unreleased in the U.S.--indeed, previously unfinished--this charmer alone makes Carpenters Gold worth your time. Stop groaning. Yes, the song is most closely associated with Kermit the Frog. That Muppet had a melancholy streak, a hint of a whine, a lament in his throat, and Karen outdoes Kermit in mining the sadness here, though the effect hits you not in the heart but as a lump in the throat. Gliding along the melody, Karen mines sadness through sweet wistfulness. Richard layers her voice atop an ambitious yet uncluttered arrangement that recalls Burt Bacharach, the tracks Paul McCartney produced for the Welsh singer Mary Hopkin in the late '60s, and Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

(Yet another question: How is it that the struggle in "Reason to Believe" evades Karen, despite her best intentions, but seeking "the rainbow connection . . . the lovers, the dreamers, and me" seems right within her wheelhouse? Is it simply that ten years passed between the two recordings?)

From there, disc 1 gathers steam as it progresses, arranger Richard slowly pressing the accelerator. "Sweet, Sweet Smile" is a little bit country and a little, surprisingly, muscular in the rhythm section, making it a bit like T. Rex lite. The Carpenters' longtime guitarist, Tony Peluso, contributes tasty work here and on their version of Herman's Hermits' "There's a Kind of Hush (All Over the World)." Then comes, holy smoke, their version of the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'." Richard constructed this track from a 1967 or so demo, preserving Karen's original vocal but surrounding it with rerecorded instrumentation. You may think you know "California Dreamin'," but you don't know its deep despair until you've heard Karen work slowly through the opening verse. Can you say "mature beyond her years"? Then the tempo picks up, and the duo cruise like they're the Zombies in their prime (as on 1964's "She's Not There"). Karen sounds sassier than she did subsequently, at least judging from this compilation and Carpenters albums I've sampled.

Neil Sedaka's cowritten ballad "Solitaire" yields quiet devastation. It's "one of Karen's finest performances," Richard notes; she's so committed to this depiction of a loner that her face becomes superimposed on a hazily imagined body. "We've Only Just Begun" is the kind of pop perfection that Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and Petula Clark once delivered--a transporting testament to love's life-changing potential. The cover of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade" transports you, wherever you are and whatever time it is, to a nightclub or penthouse apartment late at night, where denizens exchange knowing nods at the acknowledgment that they are lost in the mind games they're playing. Karen inhabits all of them at once, her voice viscous yet husky.

If you can't appreciate this string of stylistically diverse, sonically delicious, emotionally rich confections, strength building on strength, you simply don't have a taste for the pop-rock achievements of the period. Credit must be bestowed on brother Richard as architect of this collection and arranger of the Carpenters' constructions generally.

But wait--what's that I hear? Objections have been raised against greatest-hits collections. Overruled. I recommend this collection as a handy way to appreciate the Carpenters' talents and to take in some otherwise hard-to-come-by gems. Plus, music-collector snobbishness and obsessiveness aside, there are many artists for whom a greatest hits collection more than fits the bill, carving away the chaff.

We might see Richard as having crafted this generous offering, a two-and-a-half-hour labor of love, as his bid for the Carpenters' inclusion in our hearts and archives. Kudos to him for not including any of the album tracks on which he sang lead vocals. It's a shame that there wasn't room for more of his and Karen's deep cuts, such as the spellbindingly somber Carpenter-Bettis meditation "Crescent Noon" (yes, "Noon," not "Moon"; from 1970's pretty much perfect Close to You, five of whose twelve tracks appear here).

Further objections have been raised against brother Richard's tinkering with the duo's sound. He is accused of remixing the recordings, rerecording and omitting parts, even adding reverb. Reverb, I tell you, reverb! In fact, in his liner notes he acknowledges at least some of these changes.

I get where the detractors are coming from. Indeed, I've been there in regard to other artists' work. Sometimes you want music to sound just the way you remember it. You're Snoopy, in a Peanuts strip from 1972, discovering that your childhood home, the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm, has been replaced by a parking garage. You raise a fist and shout, "You're parking on my memories!!!"

But to me, as a new arrival on Planet Carpenters, Snoopy's ire is neither here nor there. If you don't know or care what the originals sounded like, you can freely enjoy what's here. Originalists will have to stick with vintage vinyl--though with this caveat: Richard and Karen had been altering their recordings since at least the Singles collection. The waters may be so muddy at this point that the evidence of particular tinkering comes mainly from Boomer and Gen X recollections. Why trust those geezers?

Instead, surrender to the Carpenters' insistence on doing things their way. Spin disc 2 of Complete Gold: 35th Anniversary Edition, which delivers more of the good, the great, and the unfortunate. The great comes right at the start, with 1973's "Yesterday Once More," Richard and John Bettis's tribute to oldies that sound so right:

Every sha-la-la-la
Every woh-oh-woh-oh
Still shines

Every shing-a-ling-a-ling
That they're startin' to sing's
So fine

Karen's dedication to the sentiment doesn't waver, and Richard's production and arrangement have the attention to detail, the ringing guitars, the layered voices, the electronic sheen, that listeners love about, say, Brian Eno's pop-song albums of the period. This track might pair well with something on Eno's 1974 Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) or his 1975 cover of the Tokens' "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Both the Carpenters and Eno might lead to one of the echoey retro-dream-pop numbers constructed by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti on Julee Cruise's Floating into the Night (1989). I'd find it highly surprising if Lynch, at least, wasn't a Carpenters fan.

Heck, with his sometimes-surprising fondness for the sweet, Lynch might even like "Sing." If you grew up in the U.S. in the '70s, there's a good chance you have some part of this song lodged in your consciousness. In my reckoning, the one unlistenable track on disc 2 is this exhortation to

Sing a song
Sing out loud
Sing out strong
Sing of good things, not bad
Sing of happy, not sad

Only five paragraphs ago, I sang the praises of "The Rainbow Connection," so I'm on record as enjoying the Carpenters' take on Muppets music. However, the children's chorus on "Sing" gets between Karen and any attempt she might have made to find a hint of life's sharp edges here. If she knows things might not end well, she's not telling. She's just singing this happy face of a song.

(Penultimate question: The three Perfect Sound Forever writers who have written about the Carpenters offer differing takes on "Sing." Does that suggest the song is a kind of Rorschach inkblot? By extension, is the Carpenters' music richly evocative or a vacuum to be filled?)

The Carpenters Curious probably shouldn't start with "Sing." Certainly that track feels more legitimate, not just propagandistic, when it's in the company of harder stuff, relatively speaking, and Richard positions it just so. Consider "Ticket to Ride," which puts the Beatles on opiates and turns their propulsiveness inside-out by emphasizing the line "I think I'm gonna be sad." Or "Goodbye to Love," which turns soft pop inside-out through the propulsiveness of a gutsy, spiraling fuzz-guitar solo by Peluso.

For the collection's penultimate number, Richard has saved the Carpenters' cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You." The song's self-reflexive brilliance was clear from Russell's original, in 1970. As a composition it has probably survived renditions by the mediocre and worse. Karen, two years after Russell, gets bluesy in her velvety way, proving that she could have been a torch singer and fulfilling the expressive promise of that "California Dreamin'" demo. For this version, Richard has embellished the 1972 recording, and the result features Beach Boys-esque harmonies and a sax solo, by longtime Carpenters instrumentalist Bob Messenger, longer and more soulful than you expect it to be. Karen's concluding lines lead to an exquisite fade.

The collection's finale is "Karen's Theme," a lovely two-and-half-minute instrumental from Richard's 1997 solo album, Pianist, Arranger, Composer, Conductor. Piano and strings intertwine and are complemented by horn motifs. You can imagine Karen vocalizing wordlessly over the quieter passages. Doing so may bring you back to disc 1 and similar sonic and perceptual effects in "Superstar."

Apart from personal meaning for you, the significance of this music lies not in big themes but in specifics. You experience a Carpenters song as vocal inflections and instrumental signposts. Either aspect may draw you in to unexpectedly deep feeling--not the performers' emotion so much as your own, your entering the emotional terrain of the track as you absorb the carefully crafted tones. Each moment in a good-to-great Carpenters recording is a window for exploration, on the other side of which lies drama that needs to be perceived to be realized, by which I mean both acknowledged and brought to fruition. My experience suggests that, despite the music's surface accessibility, the perception may require effort and the right circumstances.

Years ago I read an online comment that denounced repeated listening to music that didn't initially appeal. You can come to like anything if you try, the commenter warned. What a horrible scenario, if true. Imagine coming to like something, discerning merit where at first glance you found none, overcoming your own resistance and adopting a fresh perspective.

Go down that slippery slope and you might find not just new things, Carpenters or no Carpenters. You may decide that what you once believed may not be true. What you once loved may not be the end-all-and-be-all. There's room for more--in your collection, in your life, in you. More is possible. Nothing is essential.

(Final question, for extra credit: Was a child who, in the 1980s, made up the four-line song "Sing / Sing a song / Make it loud / But make it short" being funny? clever? disrespectful? insightful? all of the above?)

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