Saturday, December 19, 2009

Carpenters

The Carpenters (more correctly, Carpenters) surely deserve a unique place in the annals of pop music. The group comprised the brother and sister duo, Karen and Richard Carpenter who both were gifted with very special talents.

Of course Karen is the one we nearly always hear on record with that pure, clear wonderful singing voice that perhaps remains unmatched by any other female performer. Though not especially gifted singing wise Richard was a bit of a musical genius who wrote (with John Bettis) some of their best songs and was chiefly responsible for the truly superb production values of their recorded albums.

Their first album - initially titled "Offering" - contained their cover of the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride". Though sung in a slow tempo not really in keeping with the original, it displays well the remarkable quality of young Karen's voice. Though this was their first single release and proved a minor hit the album contains a few superb tracks that unfortunately have been overlooked. Chief among these - both co-written by Richard - are the sophisticated ballad "Someday" and the intriguing "Eve" which is a great song and quite unlike any other track subsequently recorded by Carpenters. It is given a remarkably mature vocal performance by Karen and deserves to be included in any "Best of Carpenters" selection.

However it was the next single "Close to You" that was to prove their real breakthrough and a worldwide massive hit. Though this Bacharach/David composition had already been recorded by Dionne Warwick and Dr. Kildare himself, Richard Chamberlain, Carpenters injected it with fresh appeal especially through the hypnotic strains of the chorus.

Then it hit single following hit single and hit album following hit album. Among the greatest hits were "Top of the World " Goodbye to Love" and "Yesterday Once More" (which Richard wrote with John Bettis), "Rainy Days and Mondays", "For All we Know" "Sing and their revival of the Marvelletes hit "Please Mr. Postman". However as is so often the case this was eventually to undermine Carpenters. Great success can in fact prove a significant trap with all energy necessarily devoted to the next performance, tour, interview, studio session etc. And as world wide frame grows it becomes harder and harder to get off the constant treadmill.

It seems to me that problem was compounded by the fact that both Richard and Karen had perfectionist personalities. While this was of considerable value in getting them established, it was to prove a growing hindrance as they sought in different ways to cope with the demands of continuing success. While Richard developed a drug habit, Karen showed worrying signs of severe anorexia. Strangely however right up to the end there was no diminishment in the quality of her performances (which perhaps detracted attention from the seriousness of her condition). However it was apparent from the mid 70's onwards that the material and production values on their recordings had dipped somewhat (reflecting Richard's loss of direction). Having said this many of these still sound wonderful due to Karen's marvellous voice. Indeed some of the later material carry a refined sensual quality which I especially like. Chief among these are "Slow Dance", "Touch Me When I'm Dancing" (which was her last top 20 hit in the US) and "Make Believe it's your First Time".

Then when it was already too late, Karen in a desperate bid to find some self identity of her own, left for a solo recording with Phil Ramone as producer. Sadly - though interesting in it's own right - it falls below the earlier standard with most of the material not released for some time. Perhaps the best from this session is the catchy uptempo number "Making Love in the Afternoon".

Certainly the most revealing recording - and Karen's own declared personal favourite - is "I Need to be in Love" with the words especially fitting her personality (and unfortunately I suspect the root of her tragic illness).
"I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
and fool enough to think that's what I'll find."

Best Track

Surprisingly perhaps I would opt for "Only Yesterday" (another song written by Richard and John Bettis).

The more I listen to this, the more I realise how superb it is with Karen's beautiful singing of a lovely uptempo number and Richard's brilliant production (masterfully combining layers of sound in the chorus). I never saw him so animated as when he was interviewed once in a programme on Les Paul where he marvelled at his (i.e. Paul's) multitracking techniques on the songs he recorded with Mary Ford back in the 50's. Well he learnt well because "Only Yesterday" matches and perhaps surpasses the earlier Paul material (as regards production).


Favourite Track

However there is one clear favourite for me of all their recordings which is We've Only Just Begun" and released as their follow-up to "Close to You" in late 1970.
Again there is a special reason why it resonates so strongly with me as this was a unique time in my life when I was briefly filled with a pure form of spiritual joy. In no small measure the purity and clarity of Karen's voice together with the sentiments in the lyrics corresponded to my mood at the time. Bathed in this light, I felt that life indeed had really just begun and the future seemed very bright. In truth this mood was to pass very quickly giving way to lengthy periods of darkness and despondency. However whenever I hear this song it magically transports me back to that time restoring in some measure that original joy and the hope that it so powerfully enshrined.

There is one other song that I especially like called "When He Smiles" which is perhaps the most infectious they have ever performed. Though tipped at one stage as a future single release, this never in fact happened. Though a version with limited release was eventually made available some time after Karen's death, it never has received the attention that I - for one - believe it deserves.


Like so many others, I always remember Carpenters with particular fondness for their very special contribution to pop music.

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