August 25, 2010

Carpenters Made in America: Can't Go on Living A Memory


Many times over the last month or so, I have wanted to finish writing this post on the Carpenters' first release of the 1980's: Made in America. Funny thing is, my favorite music discussion board at A&M Corner, has been constantly abuzz with threads concerning the album and particularly it's third single, (Want You) Back in My Life Again.

Not only did the intelligent and insightful responses there make me listen to the album several times, they also challenged me to write a better article! But I had to let some time lapse to get a better grasp on the disc. All said, go there and join the boards- you'll be amazed at what you'll learn from the industry insiders and hard core A&M Records fans that post there. So, let's dig into it...
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The house that Herb Alpert built alongside businessman Jerry Moss was a house divided: on one hand, Karen and Richard Carpenter were much appreciated for their "cash cow" status. On the other, it was well known inside the music industry that although Alpert loved them, it was somewhat of a disgrace to have them on the label. After all, the Carpenters weren't rock and weren't cool, but as the old adage goes, "Money Talks". In the early to mid 70's no one made the label more money. Or perhaps anyone on any label. Worldwide.

Their greatest hits collection, The Singles 1969 - 1973 established the duo for the ages, but subsequent albums ran the gamut from being definitive works ("Horizon" and "Christmas Portrait") to relative filler ("A Kind of Hush") to clearly out of touch with what was popular on the charts ("Passage") and desperate to establish a new image. 


October 28, 1978 Billboard ad for "I Believe You".

The last single from Karen and Richard was the beautiful but unsuccessful "I Believe You" in 1978. They sounded great here, but times and taste had changed. The old school torch song was an even bigger flop than "Goofus".


Leaving their 70's success and entering into the 80's, things were tough for our favorite duo from Downey, California. Karen's later revealed struggle with anorexia nervosa, her abandoned solo album with Phil Ramone, and Richard's eventually successful battle with prescription drugs, meant that the career had to take second place to their personal lives. By the time work had finished on their comeback album in 1981, two and a half years had passed. This would be alright for superstar caliber artists a decade later, but it was much too long for their season of popularity.

The album arrived to much industry fanfare, but with a slowly breaking Top Twenty single, "Touch Me When We're Dancing", it was going to be an uphill battle to get the Carpenters a Top Ten album. Ah, but the single! Just hearing Karen's voice after so much time was a treat! As a young twenty something madly in love with my soon to be wife, I couldn't get enough of the song, but it remained hard to find on the radio. When the full album was released in June, I was right there at the local Licorice Pizza store in to buy it. 

What was it with the cover? Had the A&M promotion folks gone mad? Why an illustration, even if it was fairly well done? After the previous two album covers had displayed artwork versus a photograph of the duo, you would think the record company would desire something different. (The recent photo sessions created a fairly up-to-date image for them, and these shots have been used for compilations years later.) No matter- the album was mine, and home I went to plug in the earphones for my traditional first listen.


From the opening bars of "Those Good Old Dreams", the Carpenters I had known and loved were back. The artistry was there; the warm familiarity was there; and most importantly, the Voice of the generation was back.

In hindsight, that is much of the problem with this collection. Karen and Richard were stuck here in a time warp of their own making. The album relies on an old formula, almost as if Richard looked at their largest hits and then found songs that sounded similar: "Those Good Old Dreams" equals "Top of the World"; "Strength of a Woman" begins eerily familiar to "Superstar"; and the most obvious comparison is covering "Beechwood-45789" a la "Please Mr. Postman". Yet, these newer recordings have much less emotional and sonic impact than the ones that came before them. I really like the first two of the three songs mentioned, but then again, I can find good in most things.

Made in America was certainly a pretty enough album, but much like Hush, it was far too soft for contemporary popular radio. The sound of it lacked "bite"; everything seemed to be softer, sweeter, and almost airbrushed. The drums, the horns, almost all of it. Even Tony Peluso's great guitar work had sadly lost its rock edge. Karen and Richard were no longer relative to the times.

The album's lyrics were cautiously optimistic at times, betraying the overall sunshine feel of the music. When viewed as a whole, there's a good amount of trouble brewing beneath the surface. Even Karen's wedding song to Tom Burris, Because We Are in Love, hints at uncertainty and fear. (Wish Karen would have listened to herself and ditched the guy! And ditched the song. It is one of my least favorites of all their recordings.) The same could be said in hindsight for the buoyant looking portrait on the cover. Something just didn't feel right- and no one but family and industry insiders knew the truth.


Single number one eventually creeped up to number 16, with each additional release doing much worse than the one before it. For the hardcore fan, it was so much in the same vein of earlier recordings that the disc was enjoyable but ultimately added nothing to their body of work. The one different sounding cut was the Doobie Brothers - ish (Want You) Back in My Life Again, and it ends up sounding more like a plea to radio programmers and fans of old, in spite of some impressive work by Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille and Ian Underwood of the Mothers of Invention.


That said, there was some maturing to be found in the lyrics but without the sexual explicitness many artists thought was necessary to survive the times. (That is one aspect of Richard's production and song choice I have always appreciated, and one that has made me really dislike some of Karen's solo work. Not the voice, but the lyrics.)

"Somebody's Been Lyin'" in particular, is a poignant look at the end of a relationship. There's not too many songs in the Carpenters' catalogue where Karen takes some responsibility for the end, although "This Masquerade" from the Now & Then disc hints the breakup is near for those very reasons. Again, the newer song has some depth, but it is not as sophisticated as their earlier recording.

It was clear that A&M didn't know what to do with the album or the artists at this point, as the album headed down the charts as quickly as it rose. Karen and Richard headed off to Europe and South America for promotion, maybe even stops in Japan (a place of strong fan devotion); I'm not sure. The videos for the singles went from average to plain out awful, but at least they were in the public eye once again.

Sadly, this was Karen's last released recording while she was alive. Made in America is probably the weakest album in their collection, the one most desperate, the one that got away. It should have been more, it should have been better. Many of the unreleased songs recorded for the album were stronger than the ones that made the cut. The disc made for a nice addition to my collection, and I played it regularly. Of course, my own wedding was coming soon, so it didn't have as much turntable time as earlier albums.

A little over a year and a half later, the girl with the golden voice would be gone. Too bad she couldn't have passed with a blockbuster hit as her latest release. Guess you really "can't hold on, living a memory".

Even though this would be the end of the duo, Richard continued on, as will the reviews of Carpenters' discs both as a duo, with solo works, and other artist productions on tap as well. Stay tuned. (By the way, the entire Carpenters series begins here
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