June 25, 2008

Carpenters: Close to You - Second Time's the Charm


Although quickly put together to capitalize on the success of the Close to You single, this 1970 album is actually a near perfect representation of the combined talents of Richard and Karen. This disc remained on my turntable for many weeks. Repeated listenings over the decades have only deepened my appreciation for it, making it a sentimental favorite.

Starting with the iconic recording of Paul Williams' and Roger Nichols' We've Only Just Begun, the set continues with Love is Surrender. This Ralph Carmichael tune is just the vehicle to show the duo's versatility, taking on a contemporary Christian song for a new spin. The rhythm track shines with playful vocals, making me a believer. Returning to ballads, Maybe It's You, this Carpenter / Bettis original, holds up well even in comparison to their later and better known compositions. Quietly elegant, this track still catches me off guard with its intimate reading by Karen. Even at twenty years of age, she sang like a seasoned professional, drawing me into her world.

Reason to Believe is next up. The Tim Hardin classic, the Rod Stewart standard? Yes, indeed, and Karen and Richard's warm countrified version meets the challenge, showing they can excel in most any style. I reconsidered my view on country music because of this song alone, and in my mind, there were too few songs of this style in their repertoire. A reading of the Beatle's Help is next. It is an unnecessary choice- my least favorite track on the album- and the one I used to wish wasn't here as it breaks the established mood. That said, the dramatic ending does set up the exquisite and elongated version of Close to You.

Turning the LP over (and don't you miss the old 12" x 12" covers?), I thought the best was behind me as the two hit singles were found on side one. But what a surprise. Baby It's You captured my ear at first listen and contains one of the finest saxophone solos the Carpenters ever put to disc. Karen's performance is surely a knockout, but this is one of the first times the listener gets a glimpse of young Richard as a great, not just capable, arranger. It is a perfect pairing of singer, song choice, and production, proving his work on the Close to You single wasn't luck. Baby is intimate, dramatic, compelling. The promotions folks at A&M missed the mark here, as this deserved to be their third smash single.

Another Burt Bacharach classic gets the definitive treatment as I'll Never Fall in Love Again is next. Layered vocals and engaging keyboards give us a fresh take on this Top 40 hit. Two more Carpenter/Bettis compositions, the stark but lovely Cresent Noon, followed by Mr. Guder- a good solid song with a strange title, shift the mood once again. For the next number, Richard proves himself a pretty good vocalist. On the breezy I Kept on Loving You, the rhythm guitar plays perfectly against his confident phrasing. This terrific album ends with Another Song, an epic tale of love found and love lost, featuring an ambitious arrangement equal to the powerful fuzz guitar solo on the later Goodbye to Love. This album was a perfect introduction to the talents of this brother and sister team. I was hooked.

Interestingly, I started to discover the power of music to influence its listeners. Not only was the album a turning point in my appreciation of other styles of music, country music in particular, but in hindsight I realized the music of Karen and Richard helped form many of my ideas about romantic love. In the real world, not necessarily a good thing. Yet I also discovered they made some great "mood" music, so you take the good with the bad!

Receiving their gold records. 

It was a pleasure discovering their wonderful singles were not a fluke. In my opinion, the only thing stopping this set from being Karen and Richard's masterpiece album is the absence of a chart topping Carpenter/Bettis composition. That would come later. This fine collection did establish a long and successful career, creating a large and dedicated fan base of listeners from all over the world. I could not wait for their next album, and fortunately it didn't disappoint.
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2015 Note: Continue to the next disc review here.

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