August 13, 2008

Carpenters: A Song for All of Us

With the release of the Tan album, I was a fan for life. Really more of a fanatic. Anticipating every release, watching the record stores, and following the charts became a very fun little hobby for this young teen who grew up in Orange County, California, just south of the duo's Downey home. With radio stations K-Earth 101 and 93 KHJ in Los Angeles, there was always a Carpenters song playing.

Discovering that records were recently joined by 8-Track tapes, I knew the music was now portable- and constantly requested, as my Mom graciously carted me around town in her convertible, which happened to be blessed with the latest sound system. Nothing like cruising Pacific Coast Highway and listening to my favorite artists. (Or heading off to Disneyland- and that love for Disneyland was something I discovered I had in common with my favorite female vocalist!) I couldn't wait for more music, and the Carpenters forthcoming 1972 album only fed my growing fanaticism.

The ad for the new single.

An early first single, Hurting Each Other, was another powerful hit, zooming up the pop charts and building anticipation for a new album release. In some ways similar to Baby It's You, this song showcased Karen's vocal range from almost a whisper to just short of her belting it out. Richard's sparse arrangement was excellent, and the use of their overdubbed background vocals provided the necessary drama, creating another must-have record.
Unfortunately, fans had to wait many months for the follow-up disc, and the new single It's Going to Take Some Time, was not the hit the duo or the label hoped it would be. The very pleasant Carole King tune with a lilting flute solo was not up to par with previous releases, and it fell short of the Top Ten, the first single to do so since their initial outing on the charts. For a few months, pop radio took a break from playing the Carpenters.

Billboard magazine ad for the album.

The new disc, however, was full of terrific material. The title song and Road Ode, in particular, gave listeners a glimpse at a maturing and somewhat weary brother and sister. The album also included the flip side of the Superstar single, Bless the Beasts and Children, a popular movie tune which had charted on its radio play alone. The great Leon Russell composition, A Song for You was a masterful piece, and it hinted that Richard knew well in advance the legacy his sister would leave in the music world. (In hindsight, I only wish they had recorded more Russell tunes. Bluebird by Helen Reddy would have been a great choice. Love that song!)
With It's Going to Take Some Time, Karen and Richard were disappointed by the response and the broken string of hits, but they marched on. Thankfully, there was a wealth of strong choices for another single, and the next one was an epic- original and controversial. Goodbye to Love was Richard's coming of age as a composer.

As an artist, arranger, and producer, he had already excelled. Now Richard would finally be recognized for the strong writer he was. As always, Karen sounded terrific. This time, however, it was an amazing fuzz guitar solo that took center stage and made both long time fans and detractors take notice.

"Power ballads" as songs like this came to be called, became radio staples in the years following Goodbye to Love, but the trend began with Richard insisting on a burning but melodic rock guitar centerpiece for his first single release as songwriter. The guitarist, Tony Peluso, was reluctant at first but eventually proud of the result.

I was instantly mermerized by the song. Highly melancholy and bittersweet, the song played with my feelings. The line began to be blurred between me viewing Karen as artist and Karen telling her autobiography through her music. The fact John Bettis knew what lyrics to write for her (and they sounded so authentic), only played into my sympathy for her. Maybe it was foretelling of what was to come a decade later. Either way, it was the beginning of me being interested in Karen and Richard as human beings, caring about their lives.

Back to the record. At the time of its release, fans were split into two main camps, either embracing or rejecting this infusion of electrical power into the duo's previously mellow sound. Richard's daring arrangement paid off, and Goodbye to Love brought them back into the Top Ten. A tour de force.

The studio version of the song was and is still powerful- especially when heard through a good set of headphones. When done live in concert, it was at once jarring compared to the rest of the evening's music, yet fit perfectly and remained a performance staple. Years later, I began to wonder if this song was Richard's response to the rock world, either making peace or proving he could win the game playing on their turf. The single had the desired effect, and A Song For You continued to sell well, even though this would be the last single from the album for the time being.

Looking only at the recordings fully completed during Karen's shortened lifetime, The Singles 1969 - 1973 divides their output neatly in half. That greatest hits compilation was still a year and a half away when A Song for You was released. However, the disc eventually became a hits album of its own and ranks as the strongest release during the first half of their career. That is saying quite a bit given Karen and Richard's consistently good track record both in terms of sales and artistry.

Four albums into their career, Karen and Richard were going strong and still in demand, but things would not stay this way for long. However, none of us knew what was waiting in the years ahead and only anticipated good times and chart hits with no end in sight.

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