October 18, 2010

Carpenters Voice of the Heart: The End of A Song

Continuing on with my series on Carpenters albums...
All too quickly after "Made in America" had run its course on the charts, Karen and Richard Carpenter retreated from the music scene. By then, her eating disorder was winning the battle. According to Richard's account, Karen was tired, and it showed. The A&M Records label tried one last time to create interest in their comeback project, and the lame "Beechwood 4-5789" single was released on Karen's 32nd birthday, March 2, 1982. It deservedly fell flat on its face.

During that same time of the year, a little over one month later, my wonderful wife and I married, vowing to love one another before family, friends, and God. By most accounts, we've done pretty well. We are very thankful. Between setting up a home, adjusting to married life and two growing careers, anything other than my marriage and my commitment to Jesus took a back seat. Including music and my love of reading Billboard magazine.

In all honesty, the Carpenters were off my radar. So, it came as quite a shock to receive a telephone call from my sister on the day of February 4, 1983. I was sitting at my desk doing my job. My personal line rang. "I just heard on the radio that Karen Carpenter died this morning." I was positive that my sister's words were a prank, and I laughed at the absurdity of it. No jokes, not this time. I quietly walked out of my office and to my car. The tears came pretty hard.

I flipped on the radio, and of course, the news was all over. Living in Southern California, the Carpenters were home grown talent as well as being international and beloved recording stars. Over the days to come, the story spilled out. How could this be? Sure, Karen was thin, but I never saw it coming. The voice was still terrific and the personality as spunky as ever. In fact, I had been more concerned with the infamous cancer scare rumor that was circulating a few years prior.

Spending many of my mornings in prayer for Richard and his family, it still seemed rather impossible to believe she was gone. As a young man with a strong belief in the authority of the Bible as God's love letter to man, I saw only two options for her eternity, and I praying to God her family roots in Christianity were personalized and had made a lasting impact on her life. After all, missionaries to China were in her family line, so I was hopeful.

A&M Records' tasteful farewell to Karen.

Karen's voice was so much a part of my life, in some ways, her death couldn't be real; it just couldn't be true. From that first hearing of "We've Only Just Begun" while I was riding the school bus, I was hooked. Yet, deep down I knew it was true, and the radio airwaves were full of their recordings for the first week, while tabloid publications printed articles both factual and misleading, full of speculation concerning her death. Eventually, word leaked out that Richard was planning to release an album they had been working on prior to Karen's death.

Life goes on, as they say, and in fact, it did for us. We later discovered my wife was pregnant with our first child. Our journey took a new turn, and we were thrilled by the news. As it worked out, he was born in November- and my wife's baby shower ended up happening just a few days after the release of "Voice of the Heart".

With such powerful personal events surrounding Karen's passing and the release of her first posthumous work, it would have been impossible for me to objectively review the disc then. Admittedly, even after 27 years, (the album was released today that long ago), it is still somewhat hard to do so. My instinctive hunch is many other Carpenters fans are in the same position.

A&M Records promotion sheet

With the release date of the album near, A&M Records had a difficult task on their hands. How would they promote the new album without appearing to cash in on Karen's untimely death? Certainly a delicate task but one in which they succeeded. "A great voice makes new memories" was A&M's tasteful response, and it seemed to be an appropriate promotional campaign. In fact, it felt as if this was one of the few times the company knew exactly how to package and promote the duo. Ironic.

With the choice of "Make Believe It's Your First Time" as the lead single release, Richard aimed squarely for the middle of the road listening audience- or only guaranteed its airplay there instead of on Top 40 radio. Maybe it was the expected depression after Karen's death, the desire to prove his production work on the song was just as powerful as the Phil Ramone produced solo version, or even not his choice at all. Nonetheless, with its choir drenched vocal background, the song was a poor choice, effectively ending their tenure on the American pop charts and radio stations. A&M should have chosen another track. It was great- heartbreakingly so- to hear Karen's voice on the radio, and I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard it. Hearing it was emotional- but the sales never came, and the song did not dent the Billboard Hot 100 sales chart.

As with the years of new Carpenters releases before it, I was in place ready to purchase Voice of the Heart on the day of its release. I had bought the single, so I saw the gorgeous photo of Karen and knew what to expect for the cover. Yet, to see it in the large vinyl sized format, stunning! Claude Mougin's portrait of Karen made for a simple, clean but most elegant cover. Karen rarely looked as beautiful as she did portrayed here, with his camera capturing the visual essence of her vocal presence. (Note: I left the image at the top of this post in its full size- click on it to see it in a very large size!) Accordingly, Richard's portrait (by Larry Williams) on the back of the album is an effective tribute. It honors his work and contribution to the duo but clearly and appropriately places the emphasis on Karen, honoring her legacy.

In reviewing the music, let me say, I know this disc well. Very well. In fact, when I was choosing whether or not to buy a compact disc player, it was recommended to me that I purchase an the compact disc version of an album I knew in detail and take it to the dealers for a listen. Voice was the disc I chose back in 1987. (Of course, even my wife knew it was inevitable I would buy a compact disc player!)

Once I got past the cover photo and the song list and Richard's note on the back, it was time for a listen. To hear Karen sing the opening line of this first song makes the listener stop everything else and pay attention. "Now, now when it rains I don't feel cold". Her voice is rich and resonate, clearly without a hint of strain due to the anorexia that ravaged her. She has so much control over her voice. Never a screamer, always an interpreter, Karen shines on the song. Richard's arrangement and orchestration are equally confident and subdued. The oft used oboe, flute, and somewhat mournful saxophone adding to the sublime beauty of her voice. Although many listeners, me included, would have preferred Karen and Richard's background vocals on this recording from 1982, the choir here is just alright- a little pronounced at times- and it adds to the drama of the production even though it detracts from the intimacy.

Under the circumstances, a very well done byline announcing the new album.

With an opening number as powerful as "Now", I expected something more in that melancholy vein. The introduction let me know it wasn't a ballad. The melancholy was there; not in the playful music and joyous singing in "Sailing on the Tide" but in the lyrics: "Leaving at dawn, after I'm gone, life will go on. Someone's gotta take my place running in the human race". However, Karen's vocal work has such a buoyancy to it - starting with the phrasing on the word "sailing"- that the song is just plain fun and a nice break from a pretty serious minded collection. Ultimately, the end result is a much more effective song than the similarly upbeat "Happy", part of the duo's masterpiece album Horizon.

There is one additional but major similarity between "Horizon" and "Voice of the Heart". Both albums present Karen's voice in the same intimate, sonically "warm" manner. For an album that is a patchwork quilt of styles and in years recorded, "Voice" is very consistent in production. The sound is superb, and to misquote Herb Alpert, it does seems as if Karen is sitting in your lap and singing right in your ear. I'm sure Richard had to work extremely hard to accomplish this feat. Kudos to him for persevering in the midst of such great pain!

Admittedly, it has taken some time, years actually, for me to truly appreciate "Sailing". It was only in the repeated listenings of it in preparation for this post that I came to really enjoy it for what it was. It's not an outtake, and it's not a single; it is a strong album cut that reminds the listener Karen and Richard could have much fun in the middle of the stresses of life. I'm glad it is there on this collection! In the midst of so much sadness, there's a piece of joy to be found in the end of her suffering.

After "Sailing", next up is "You're Enough", the first of four Carpenter/ John Bettis compositions on the disc and, to my knowledge, the last songs of theirs recorded. It is a solid work, but again, not Top 40 material. Again, Karen sounds great. This other 1982 recording overcomes its silly "lucky starlight" absurdities by the time it ends, presenting a fairly mature view of love as well as the romantic innocence of when it is new. Thanks to Tim May and Tony Peluso the guitars sound terrific. The drums here by Ron Tutt are just the right touch. In fact, all the drummers, Larrie Londin and Ed Greene included, bring a consistent feel to the recordings. It is sad to note, however, that Karen doesn't play on any of these selections. For a gal who once considered herself a drummer first and a vocalist second, it is just too bad this tribute album of sorts includes no playing by her. Maybe after the disappointment with her unreleased solo album, a clearly lackluster response by the public to the Made in America album, and a failed marriage, Karen lost heart and desire to do more than just sing. Yet there are only two cuts here, so it is difficult to guess what was going on.

In the realm of the instrument of the human voice, there is a little too much choir on "You're Enough"- restraint here would have been better- but the song remains much more sophisticated than earlier ones such as "Sandy" from the Hush disc of 1976. Seems as if this would be the direction future Carpenters projects would go had Karen lived longer. Maybe the next step before the inevitable "American Songbook" they should have recorded.

Both "Now" and "You're Enough" are filled with a genuine warmth that is missing from the tracks recorded for "Made in America". Perhaps Karen understood more about her frail condition than we know, because her reading of these songs harkens back to the yearning and wistfulness of the Tan album, particularly "Rainy Days and Mondays", "Let Me Be the One" and "Hideaway". 

Lyrically, the next song is probably one of the most unexpected in all of the Carpenters catalogue. It comes from Karen's solo album and is blatantly sexual in nature. Unfortunately, although it is beautiful to listen to, Richard's take on it is rather odd. The arrangement is dreary, and the song is drenched in out of place background vocals. In reviewing the album upon its release, Billboard's Paul Grein wryly said, "It's awfully crowded in that bedroom" or something to that effect. Karen herself even sounds a bit bored. "Make Believe It's Your First Time" is better heard as a single on the radio. In its album appearance, the song is further marred by the inclusion of Karen speaking. Yes, it was good to hear her voice, but for the sake of the album, her words could have been saved for a "making of" video or something of the sort. Back then, I didn't like how her in studio comments broke the mood of the album. It still has the same effect when I hear it today. Needless to say, I much prefer the Phil Ramone produced version.

"Two Lives", the next cut, is probably my least favorite on the album, and I would also deem it the weakest. The quasi country arrangement (with oboe?) and again, those background vocals, just seem a bit like to much of a stretch to feel real versus manufactured, leaving the recording lost between two genres. It does come across as a good companion piece of sorts to Made in America's "Somebody's Been Lyin'" as its lyric line tells the tale of a love lost with both parties responsible for the wreckage. All said, the idea of a Carpenters Country Love Song compilation is not that far fetched.

On the album, Side Two begins with "At The End of A Song", another one of the remaining Carpenter/Bettis compositions. The acoustic guitar work by Tim May is beautifully Latin tinged and rather surprising as well as sublimely effective. It's a pretty cut. In my opinion, the selection's a bit of an underdog on this collection but has grown into one of my favorite pieces here. Karen's gentle approach to the lyrics, when it could have been bitter and biting, and Richard's understated arrangement seems just the right gentle touch without being lightweight.

What can I say about their take on Paul William's composition "Ordinary Fool"? Not only is it my personal favorite of every Carpenters recording, it stands as Karen's finest performance and maybe Richard's most stunning arrangement.

This number represents what a true "unplugged" album of theirs would/should sound like: understated, elegant, and like "Superstar" and "Rainy Days and Mondays" before it, years beyond their youth. Chuck Del'Monico's bass gives the tune a blues flavor never attempted before by the duo. Richard plays as if he's been the Piano Man for decades, and John Phillips' tenor saxophone solo quietly and mournfully ties it all together. And the OK Chorale is, thankfully, no where to be found. Sometimes, less is more. Pure audio perfection. (I hear this was originally recorded for "Hush", but it would have fit in wonderfully a year earlier on "Horizon".)

I can almost hear Karen cry as she sings here, as there is a deep but quiet pain in her voice. Desperate but resigned to loneliness. "Goodbye to Love" sounds like "Postman" in comparison. Just listen to the nuance of her phrasing in her final singing of the word "door" as Karen wrings every piece of emotion from the lyrics. Brilliant. Is the song autobiographical? Probably as much as "I Need to Be in Love", and every bit its superior.

Just when it appears to be time to buy stock in Kleenex, things look up with a playful selection. For his part, Richard's vocals shine here on "Prime Time Love"- and each cut with his backing versus the choir proves he and his sister created a better sound compared to anyone else who could have backed her up. The song is fun, fresh and contemporary. A nice break before things get more solemn and melancholy.

"Your Baby Doesn't Love You Anymore" was also recorded for "Made In America" but left aside as an extra. Pity, as it would have given some substance to a very fluffy sounding album. It's another remake as Richard once again draws from the Ruby and the Romantics collection. "Hurting Each Other" was a successful first mining of gold, and this should have been the second. But it was chosen as single release number two, long after radio had already played out the duo. Karen's voice is strong and powerful here. The drama also comes from the arrangement and playing. Richard's background vocals are excellent, proving this was where he belonged. It's a much better showcase of his decent vocal talents instead than being the guy up front. I love this recording- and as with "Ordinary Fool", play it every time this disc goes in the player.

The album closes with "Look to Your Dreams", a beautiful and inspirational song lyrically, but ironically, very sad under the circumstances. Recorded during the "Christmas Portrait" sessions, the end result is more satisfying than Karen's wedding tune. John Bettis' lyrics are clever; Richard's piano solo at the end touching, sad, appropriate. It was hard to believe this Grammy winning duo would never again enter the studio.

"Voice of the Heart" is in many ways the exact opposite of the collection that came before it. There is no hit potential on the disc except "Your Baby", and Richard was not striving for a hit but instead an album to be remembered by. Yet, it is their finest non-holiday album since their earlier masterpiece "Horizon". On "Made in America" where Karen and Richard were clearly striving for a Top 10 smash, they ironically ended up creating a very weak album. Now, for "Voice", an album that consists of mostly outtakes and a few new recordings, the ultimate result is a disc that is very strong; unified in feel and lyric.

Richard has since dissed this collection, saying all the songs should have remained outtakes sans "Now". I disagree with his assessment. The album triumphantly spans a variety of years and styles. If in fact these songs are mostly outtakes, the album genuinely shows what talented artists Karen and Richard were in the studio. Their outtakes are better than many artists' finest efforts! As swan songs go, "Voice of the Heart" ranks among Karen and Richard's greatest recordings. A fitting goodbye from a beloved singer.

All these years after Karen's passing, I still get a bit of a warm melancholy glow whenever listening to this disc. At the time, I was sure this was the end of her songs, but that was before I understood Richard's plans- including an endless stream of remixes and greatest hits collections, with a couple of surprises thrown in. Little did I know, the first one would come a year later.

(Thanks to the various photographers out there who found these images. There were so many duplicates, it was impossible to tell where and who they originally came from.)

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