September 17, 2008

Carpenters Now & Then: Looking Forward and Backward

There are many things I love about the Now & Then album- but one of the most important aspects is the presentation of Richard and Karen Carpenter as artists. Gone are the syrupy sweet photographs of the duo found on previous album covers. In their place stands a very contemporary image where the brother and sister look like the siblings they are as opposed to lovers. A great beginning for the next chapter in their career.

Back in the day, fans of Carpenters were fortunate. They released an album every year like clockwork, and I happily lined up at the music store for each one. I also had grandparents who loved music and enjoyed buying these for me as a gift. (That and tickets to Disneyland no less! Happy years.)

With their continued success, Karen and Richard were extremely busy. Although the prior album's Rode Ode gave listeners a hint of what lay behind the constant touring and recording schedule, there remained a great amount of fun to be had- and Richard still had some surprises up his musical sleeves.

Whether he was taken aback by the mixed reaction to Goodbye to Love or looking for something more traditional, the first single was an interesting choice.  Perhaps Richard just discovered it as a pleasant song when they appeared on that Robert Young television special. Regardless, Sing was a surprise. 

Announcing the new SINGle.

Sing was an odd choice for both a single and lead track for a new project. Certainly enjoyable and surprisingly popular, it reach the Top Ten in April of 1973. Unfortunately, the tune effectively wiped out much respect gained by the duo's previous hit single. For one brief instant, "Goodbye to Love" made it bearable to be a Carpenters fan in rock circles. This song changed it back to the way things used to be. Richard and Karen were constantly being accused of being "white bread". Selecting this Sesame Street tune unjustly reinforced this criticism and the idea that their music was for simpletons.

Thankfully, upon the album's release in May, fans and critics alike were soon to discover that track number two was a masterpiece from every angle. Leon Russell's elegant This Masquerade was a composition made for Karen's voice and Richard's arranging and production skills. This song was in direct contrast to the previous track. The lyrics were mature, the instrumentation sophisticated, and the vocal work sublime. Others in the music industry took notice. George Benson released his own take on the song, scoring a big chart hit and winning a Grammy in 1976. Cover versions of this song by other artists would be forthcoming, but the duo's version became an instant classic.

The concept behind the "Now" side of the disc was to showcase various kinds of contemporary and popular music. In reality, this album was one in which Richard and Karen gave us a small taste of what was to come in future releases, both good and bad. The next track, Heather, a pretty instrumental piece, really belonged as a musical background to the proverbial elevator ride. At this stage in their young career and lives, this type of Middle-of-the-Road song would have been better left in the hands of someone a quarter of a century older. Richard would later revisit this type of recording in his post-Karen career. Nice song, very wrong timing.

Taking a break from the music here for just a moment, Now & Then plays a significant role in the Carpenters place in the business side of the music industry. Previously, Jack Daugherty (below) was given credit as their producer but no longer. Richard continued to be justifiably upset when Jack was given public and industry recognition for the hits, when in reality it was Richard's genius that created and designed the Carpenters sound. The new album explicitly corrected any further misunderstanding on that point as the center panel in the fold out album (above) made production credits clear.

Back to the music: An international conquest took place with the release of the Now & Then album. Karen and Richard's increasing popularity in Japan was crowned by the incredible success of the next track, Jambalaya. This Hank Williams hoedown was not a release on U.S. soil but appeared as the third single in Japan. The playful song created quite a stir and become a concert favorite, even inciting a sing-a-long with the normally reserved Japanese audience. As in the past, country tinged tunes would appear on future albums, with the duo even considering an album solely of that type of music later in their career. Side One of Now & Then ends with the melancholy "I Can't Make Music". The title became fodder for too many critics' jokes, but it quite effectively finishes the first half of the concept album.

Big in America...

...A monster smash in Japan!

A relentless touring schedule created difficulty for Richard as he planned the new album, yet it yielded a delightful medley for part two of the disc. Due to America's new found love of 50's and 60's culture, Richard had put together a string of their favorite tunes for their live performances. Fan response was enthusiastic, so he quickly put together another similar set of oldies for the new album. These tunes were chosen for their recording appeal and the end result came complete with disc jockey voice overs by the talented Tony Peluso reprising his concert role. Needing a piece to set the tone for the medley, Richard and John Bettis came up with a little number that would become their first worldwide smash- "Yesterday Once More". This monster hit rose the Carpenters to their highest level yet in European sales and popularity. It was a hit at home as well, reaching #2 on both American and British charts. The combination of the beautiful melody line, Karen's warm vocal, and tenderly reminiscent lyrics, produced a tailormade song for those leisurely drives and relaxing summer afternoons.

While I had great appreciation for the first half of this project, it was the latter piece that I really enjoyed. Karen and Richard were having alot of fun on this album, and it was about time! Still loved the older "sadder but wiser" material, but I was happy to see my favorite artists loosening up a bit and enjoying this season of their lives. Now, I really longed to see them in concert.

Roaring into the oldies medley was Richard's terrific vocal on the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun". It was confident and playful as well as paying a small tribute to one of the bands that influenced the Carpenters music. Richard takes lead on two others as well, "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes" and "Deadman's Curve". The former is another great display of his vocal talent; the latter not as much but still a fun piece of ear candy. It is a shame that it took Richard working as a solo artist before he would release another song featuring his lead vocal.

First rate, tri-fold cover. 
A classy presentation for a great album.

Karen's selections start out slowly: the Skeeter Davis hit "The End of the World", a very melancholy tune, suits her well with the ending note showing Karen's skill at the lower end of the scale. Immediately switching gears, Karen rocks out on "Da Doo Ron Ron". A blazing saxophone solo highlights the band having a blast along with the lead singer. Karen's layered vocals on the opening of "Johnny Angel" are a fan's delight! Just when it seems things couldn't get any better, her vocal styling on "Our Day Will Come" absolutely shimmers. This "Then" performance, although very different in style, is equal to Karen's landmark "This Masquerade" on the front half of the album. Lastly the girl-group hit "One Fine Day" lets the entire team have a bit more fun as it completes the medley. A wistful reprise of "Yesterday Once More" wraps things up, ending the album and leaving fans wanting more.

Back in Downey, California.

Of course, Karen and Richard would record more oldies, with varying degrees of success: "Please Mr. Postman" was another worldwide hit; "There's A Kind of Hush" moderately successful; and "Beechwood 45789" struggling to reach the charts.

Radio all over the world loved "Yesterday Once More" and fans loved the album. It was a poor bit of planning from both our duo, and the record label, that there was no follow-up single to keep the momentum going. The album was hot, the concept of remakes of oldies a new one, and the decision to include both new songs and old quite novel. Just look at the Billboard charts in the months that followed. Every act seemed to record an oldies, just as almost every one jumped on the disco bandwagon a few years later.

 Fans so wanted a full version of "Our Day Will Come"
that eventually someone remixed it themselves.

An extended version of "Our Day Will Come" would have made a fine radio only single. Yes, plenty of source material to draw from- and other artists jumped on the oldies bandwagon- but nothing else was released to American audiences. This didn't seem to be a problem, however, as Richard was planning their first greatest hits collection. What a package it would be!

This is part of a continuing series of posts on the albums of Karen and Richard Carpenter. I began with Offering / Ticket to Ride...

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