July 5, 2011

Richard Carpenter Solo: Time to Move On

Sometimes life just hands you the hard cold facts. Karen was gone, and Richard Carpenter had to decide what he was going to do for a career. The Carpenters were one of the most successful musical acts to ever emerge from the United States. They were beloved all over the world as well as at home. Anyway it was measured, Richard and Karen Carpenter had accomplished what few artists would: a devoted following, massive sales, and an artistic legacy matched only by a select number.

After the moderate domestic success of Voice of the Heart album and completing the sessions for the release of An Old Fashioned Christmas in 1984, the creative genius behind the duo pondered his options. Rumors suggested he might retire, score a musical for Disney, or even partner with a new singer. One thing was certain. Regardless of direction, Richard had to establish himself as a artist without his sister even while he continued to oversee their legacy. After all, he was still a young man with a lot of life ahead of him. There was time.

True to form as the perfectionist he is, it took Richard a few years to complete his first solo disc. And this lengthy break worked against his album being a success. It finally arrived in 1987 but to little promotion and even less appreciation. Whether meant as an inside joke or truly just a title to reflect the instrumental song of the same name, Time was eventually released following the lead single, Something in Your Eyes with Dusty Springfield. The single was a moderate success on the easy listening charts. Tony Peluso's guitar solo had become a trademark of many Carpenters' songs and is used here to good effect. Dusty's vocals were solid and the song and production very engaging, but as with most all the selections, it was difficult to listen to without wondering what Karen would have done with it. The spectre of Karen would in fact be something Richard would deal with in every solo project.

I purchased the disc in the long form box, a cassette, and on vinyl. (Good thing, too, as it disappeared from shelves almost as quickly as it arrived.) Time wasn't a release I couldn't wait to hear but more of a curiosity I had to indulge.

The packaging was to my liking, and I felt it was true to the artist as well. Richard's well known love of the automobile was forefront. Even though Richard would never be seen as cool by the public at large, he could at least be viewed as contemporary. Looking good and fresh, without the geekiness in attire seen in most every other Carpenters photograph, it was a great shot. A&M's art/design department put some real thought into how to visually promote an artist known for not being the lead artist noticed by fans. The department even produced a nice looking logo. The video for the first single was similarly well done, tying it all together. But back to the music...

When the first cut came on, I was pretty surprised. Say Yeah! shocked me as it rocked me. The pulsating track was something more akin to the Alan Parsons Project, moody but aggressive. At times throughout the song, I could even hear a bit of influence from Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra.

A promotional Japan-only single.

The next track was a pleasant surprise, one of the few I could actually hear being played on Top 40 radio: Who Do You Love? Playful and confident, Richard's vocals and the song's lyrical content were fitting for a young man still in his thirties. In my mind, this would have been the song to reintroduce Richard as a solo artist, but instead A&M, and perhaps Richard himself, played it safe by releasing the duet with Dusty.Following said duet, the fourth track on the album, When Time Was All We Had, was a fitting tribute to Karen. Woefully placed at the front end instead of the second half, this song was the Piano Picker of the bunch, belonging later in the set. The net result left me looking backwards, wondering how these tracks would have sounded with Karen. Especially Something in Your Eyes, but I guess the comparisons would not be avoided. The title song, a beautiful elevator instrumental, follows. Yet, it too would have been better received later in the album. After three pretty strong songs followed by two that seemed out of place, it appeared to me that Richard couldn't decide exactly who he wanted to be as an artist. Was he a pop rocker? A sentimental crooner and orchestra leader? Or just a pianist, arranger, composer and conductor?

The radio single Calling Your Name Again opened the second half quite effectively, but then the immediate comparison to the next song, In Love Alone with Dionne Warwick revealed greatness in her work that Richard could not reach as a vocalist. Elegant, understated, and masterfully produced, Dionne had never sounded better. Richard does bounce back with Remind Me to Tell You, a rather telling autobiographical sounding song but one that continues to steep the album with a sadness that lasts all the way through to the end of the recording.

A very young Scott Grimes enters at this point with a joyful, upbeat, That's What I Believe, and it is one of the few songs that sound as if they were fun to record. Very perky and bright but so out of place in a very serious minded album. (Richard would go on to produce a full disc with Scott and turn out a great little album.) The last song on the disc seems so appropriate for a man greiving the loss of his sister and musical partner: I'm Still Not Over You. There only needs to be a couple of changes in the lyric line to see Richard's mind had to be focused on Karen. It's a beautiful recording. Perfect, actually. Richard shines in all his roles here, and the presence of another Tony Peluso guitar solo makes the proceedings seem all the more powerful. Of course, once I had heard the disc, I started it again. Then the cassette made it to my car. As is my pattern, I listened to it as I would any new Carpenters album, trying to memorize the lyrics, listening to all the flourishes I knew Richard would add to the basic tracks. I tried to like the album, and I really wanted to. Ultimately I settled on the reality that I honestly just appreciated the album. Richard had clearly labored over it all, that could not be denied. What I heard was a performer desperately trying to find his way, without telling anyone who wasn't familiar with his work who he was as an artist. You cannot be all things to all people in the course of ten songs. To this day, I would like to hear the tracks that didn't make the final cut as it might give me a better picture of what Richard was trying to accomplish.

Don't misunderstand. Time isn't a bad album, it just feels incomplete. It could be the obvious lack of Karen on the project or a product of anticipation not met by the length of time before its eventual release. The project feels to be a marker, a collection of unreleased songs thrown together until an artist's next real album comes along.

After the failure of Time to be on his side, Richard immersed himself in many other projects. Work on a new Carpenters collection was in the plans as well, and Lovelines would be one the strongest albums by the duo. But that is a story for another article, and there's much to say between now and then.

This article is another part in a series that explores the history and impact of their music of Karen and Richard Carpenter through their albums. The series begins with the review of the album Ticket to Ride which can be found here. If you'd like to take a look at    "30 Years Without Karen Carpenter", go here

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