February 5, 2009

The "Horizon" Review: The Carpenters Masterpiece

Elegant, ageless perfection- and way ahead of its time to be fully appreciated. Horizon is the culmination of the Carpenters' illustrious career and in some ways, the beginning of the end of it.

By the time 1973 had ended, Karen and Richard had permanently made their mark on the American music scene and the international one as well. Between chart-topping sales of Now and Then and The Singles 1969-1973, the smash successes of Yesterday Once More and Top of the World, the Carpenters were embraced by music fans around the world. The following year was a continuation of this spectacular chart success amid a hugely successful tour. However, chart success this year was paid at a high price.

A lame remix of I Won't Last a Day Without You made it to the Top Ten solely on the momentum of its predecessors. Its release confirmed that there was a lack of creativity happening for the duo. In their defense, no one else could have kept up the pace they had set for themselves. Nonetheless, what other wisdom or reason was there in taking a song from 1972- from an old album no less- and making it a single in mid-1974?

Their next two releases vaguely confirmed the creative slump: Richard and Karen's unique take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town kept the pump primed for an upcoming Christmas project. Additionally, they retreated into remake territory by releasing Please Mr. Postman as their last single release of the year.

In hindsight, my first listen to the remake of this Motown and Beatles hit, on Los Angeles station 93KHJ, was telling: It was the first time I was not 100% sure this was Karen on lead vocals. The recording of her voice seemed a bit fast and a little too sweet to my ears. Was this just a one-off placeholder or an audio taste of the next album? Ultimately, it didn't matter to me. The record was fun! I eagerly purchased this and each new release, happily waiting for them as they arrived.

December 21st Billboard ad celebrating Postman- a worldwide smash.

Closing out the year near the top of the charts, it was very frothy and playful- but a large step backwards in terms of establishing the scope of their artistry. By the end of January 1975, Postman was indeed a Number One hit all over the world. What would come next? The answer was a song many fans consider among their best. The fourth single release of a Carpenter/Bettis tune was among their strongest: Only Yesterday. Finally a truly new song- and a great one at that.

With a distinctive opening drum line, engaging, heartfelt lyric, and a mesmerizing vocal introduction by Karen, I was captivated by it at first listen. (And almost 35 years later, I still am.) My love for this song was made even stronger by the addition of their layered vocals, Tony Peluso's guitar solo, and the song's climactic ending. Only Yesterday had a fresh and very different sound, yet it seemed familiar as well. Just stunning. Couldn't wait to buy it. Once in my hands, the single was a visual treat as well. The sleeve of the 45 was as well done as the music it contained, with a brand new and very contemporary logo front and center. Karen and Richard had clearly moved on from days of old.

March 29th ad in Billboard magazine announcing the arrival of the new single.

History had taught me that a new single meant a new album was coming soon enough, and I was right. Horizon arrived in early June, just as school was ending. I left campus as quickly as I could, dashing off in my old Ford Mustang to the nearest Licorice Pizza record store. Once I entered my favorite music stop, I didn't have to search hard to find the album. It was nestled underneath a large Horizon poster. Picking up the LP, I just stared at the cover. Beautiful photography, very grown up and sophisticated. Certainly not thrown together. Nor did the brother and sister duo look as if they were lovesick teens.

Flipping the album jacket over, I surveyed the songlist. An earlier television appearance on the Perry Como Christmas Special left me hoping It's Impossible would be included on the new album. It was not to be. As I continued to read, I discovered to my dismay that there were only ten songs on this newest release and two of them were under two minutes in length. Was this another Tan album? No matter, the recording was mine, and the wait was over.
From purchase to turntable was just under an hour, a combination of well-timed traffic lights and a lead footed driver. 

The anticipation was killing me! Arrived home and ran to my room. By now, I had my own stereo, complete with Altec-Lansing speakers as tall as they came. Plugged in my earphones, took the disc out of its paper sleeve, sat down, and closed my eyes to focus. I was set to go.

May 31st ad announcing the new forthcoming album.

The first ever listen to a new Carpenters album is a treat that I never took for granted. (And how I wish there were many more ahead!) This day was no different. Hmm, Richard's piano simply opened the album as Karen started in, "Morning opens quietly..." She sounded wonderful, warm but full of confidence and a little melancholy- my favorite type of Karen recording. That melacholy in her voice perfectly matched the growing somberness in my heart.

Just as I was getting used to Aurora, it was over, and the opening bars of Only Yesterday began. Soon enough I discovered a nice little surprise. Richard had given us an extended version of his latest masterpiece, making me enjoy the song even more than I had previously. I have always appreciated these little touches that seemed to be just for us fans, as if it was his way of saying "Thank you for waiting- I'm thinking of you." Be it special packaging, reprising songs thus creating bookends, or extended versions of the hits, these were the extra touches that helped make each Carpenters album an event.

A gentle harmonica opened the next song, perfectly signaling the end of one tune and the beginning of another. Desperado was a gutsy and surprising choice. Both the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt had recorded their own versions, yet Richard's arrangement and Karen's strong delivery on this song created the new standard to beat. This clearly seemed to be the Carpenters' way of informing their critics they were not going anywhere, and yes, they could hold their own with their contemporaries. Point well proven- and reviews of the disc by even the most diehard critics almost begrudgingly admitted these were in deed the facts. How I smugly relished reading those reviews!

Celebrating Postman's success in Billboard.

A different and weightier version of Postman was next up. This was not the single version; it seemed more in tune to the feel of the album. The inclusion of the song broke the mood of the disc and seemed like a concession to A&M's sales and promotion team. Placing it on the album reinforced Karen and Richard's love for the oldies but almost instantly dated an otherwise timeless accomplishment. Seeming an immature choice, it was only in hindsight I realized they were still in their twenties given the richness of their accomplishments.

Desperado was one surprise on this album, but it was certainly not the only one to be found here. I Can Dream Can't I? came right after their Motown sidetrip. It was quite jarring in contrast, but beautifully reestablished the mood. I loved the song instantly because of Karen's use of her lower vocal range. The stunning arrangement was true to its era, and Karen performed the song as if she was its queen. My grandfather was a drummer during the Big Band years, and this style of music was usually found on their radio. I was very familiar with many of those smoky classics, but this was a new one for me.

"Songbook" albums continue to be very popular, but this 1940s gem was delivered almost a full decade before Ms. Ronstadt herself decided it would be leading edge to record an album of such elegance. Once more leading the way. By its inclusion, Karen and Richard proved they were equals with the best performers of decades past as well as on par with any current act. This choice of song and its execution only magnified my musical respect for them. Frankly, I was dazzled by the performance, and in later years wished, as did Richard, that the duo would have recorded more songs from that season of time. Side One was now finished, and I turned the disc over for more.

Ad for Solitaire. An easy direction to take
but a very poor execution for a stunning classic.

A performer with a reenergized career provided Richard and Karen with the next selection. Neil Sedaka (along with writer Phil Cody), whose range of hits ran from Calendar Girl to Breaking Up is Hard to Do, composed what should have been a modern day classic: Solitaire. Taken from his recent compilation album of songs made famous in England, Karen makes his song hers and gives the listener a vocal ending that stands among her best. Richard's arrangement is at once stark, rich, and compelling. Solitaire is a powerful performance- and one that I wanted to hear in concert. Although I saw Karen and Richard perform live in 1976, 1977 and 1978, probably because of their infamous rift with Sedaka, they never chose to perform it. It would have been a treat. In fact, my initial appreciation of this song was so strong, Solitaire was the first one selected for a repeated listen once I completed hearing the album.

Discovering another entry in a rather quirky Carpenters tradition, I found this excellent album contained its own "sequel" recordings. In the same manner that Saturday followed Rainy Days and Mondays and Druscilla Penny followed Superstar with alternative views on the previous story, Happy followed Solitaire, continuing on with its card playing metaphors. While it is a pleasant and upbeat selection, it is one that always felt quite rote in comparison to what came before or after it. I enjoyed it and knew it well as it was the flipside to the new single, but it was never a big favorite. As with Postman, this song also timestamps the album. Richard's use of synthisizers placed it firmly in the 70s, although his up front use of them came prior to the pop recordings of Gary Wright, Alan Parsons Project and their peers. Again, Richard's song selection and arrangements were ahead of his time.

Horizon Tour Booklet photo scan by Harry at the A&M Corner.

The next two songs more than made up for this temporary and slight shortcoming. (I'm Caught Between) Goodbye and I Love You and Love Me for What I Am were excellent. I sat there and just soaked in what was surrounding my ears. On both, the production is pristine, the arrangements superb and Karen's vocals outstanding. Gorgeous! In Los Angeles, both these songs became FM radio favorites in the soft rock arena. (In particular, Karen seems to make Love Me for What I Am a demanding but desperate personal plea, something not lost on listeners hearing the song after her death.) As Love Me concluded, once again, Tony Peluso's guitar rang out, with the duos multi-tracked vocals making a majestic closing statement to another outstanding album. The reprise song Eventide ended the disc, sharing the melody of Aurora but with a different and fitting lyric.

My initial response was to turn the record over starting it again, but instead, I skipped back to Solitaire just to hear Karen's amazing closing vocal line one more time. Eventually, I did start back at Side One while I took in the wonderful album design, beautiful photography, and production credits.

As it turned out, Horizon, was not the sales hit the duo or label expected it to be. After Only Yesterday ran its course, A&M tried to make a radio hit of a remixed Solitaire. Unfortunately, it was much too serious a song to become an end of summer smash, falling short of the top twenty on the national charts.

It was during the making of Horizon that Karen's health and Richard's enthusiasm and creativity continued to decline. Even worse, their public image took an unexpected hit because of their concert fiasco with Sedaka. Trouble had been brewing for quite awhile, and now it was here. The next couple of albums reflected a quiet desperation to recapture chart hits and creative joy. I was oblivious to what was to come.

For this listener, Horizon was and remains the duos finest work to date. The album may have less youthful energy and experimentation compared to their earlier work, but it shows the duo at the top of their craft! Karen's voice is prominent and intimately strong (perhaps recorded the best ever compared to any other album), but it also becomes the hook which highlights the incredible craftsmanship of Richard's work. Four decades later, Horizon is still stunning and beautiful, a perfect late night listen, both delicate and substantial. Any true masterpiece reflects but also defines its artist. This album does both and is a work ahead of its time. Showcasing Karen and Richard as vocalists, musicians, song writer, arranger and producers, Horizon is at once contemporary without being trendy, timeless and elegant- also perfectly describing the artists that created it.


Anonymous said...

Love your review of "Horizon" and the story behind it. I wish I had been old enough to experience it new the same way. My only disagreement is on "Happy" - which I love. "Horizon" is one of my all-time favorite albums and I don't think there's a weak song on it at all. If there is one I skip, it's probably "Postman" just because, like you said, it doesn't fit the feel of the rest of it. But Karen's voice is at its richest and finest on this record. Blows me away with every listen. Regards!

TristanCeltman said...

Thanks for your wonderfully written review! In my opinior this is the duo's best record!An ageless classic.

John Stufflebean said...

I too remember racing home to get my first listening of Horizon. And I too was not disappointed. This was the Carpenters peak in my opinion. I also agree that Postman did not fit at all. In fact, when I transferred the album to cassette tape, I left it out. I loved the album so much that I atranged a keyboard medley of it. Karen's voice is of course spectacular. I do wish she would have recorded more of the classic romantic songs like I Can Dream. Without Postman, this album is a wonderful suite of beautiful songs arranged and performed to perfection.

Mark Taft said...

John and Tristan, thank you for reading! I absolutely love this album and never tire of listening to it. It is an ageless classic, and yes, the Carpenters at their peak. At some point in time, I am going to relisten to each of the albums in the series (I've covered the Carps' albums one by one, starting with Ticket to Ride.) Time changes opinions on things such as music we love, but not in this case. Horizon remains my favorite Carpenters disc.