June 29, 2012

Carpenters Lovelines: A Bittersweet Release

By 1989, it had seemed like years since there had been a new Carpenters release. The many compilations aside, there had still been a good amount of previously unreleased material put out to the public. There was "Voice of the Heart", "An Old Fashioned Christmas", and Richard Carpenter's poorly received solo album, "Time".  All this new Carpenters product - including video releases - was great, but Richard had unintentionally primed his fans for one album after another. 

The television broadcast of "The Karen Carpenter Story" earlier in January had the fan world buzzing with brief clips of two new tunes, "You're The One" and "Where Do I Go From Here?", as well as the  beautifully remixed "All of My Life". The show was an unexpected smash, and I am sure many people went to the local music store looking for the latest compilation or album to find these songs. Much to their dismay, the songs were no where to be found. Chalk it up to the Carpenters popularity once again being underestimated by the A&M Records executives and publicity machine.

On the home front, the year was one of great change for us. In an unexpected turn of events, AT&T transferred me from Northern California to Portland, Oregon, and six weeks later, my young, growing family was sent off to Denver, Colorado.  It was quite the change from the warmth of the California sun with winters much cooler but still without snow. Colorado was gorgeous, but the first snowfall of the year on Labor Day weekend shocked my system, making me miss our life in Southern California. 

The release of "Lovelines" in the Fall of that year brought a piece of normal life and old times back to me. I had received a promotional copy in the mail from A&M executive Jon Konjoyan, a true music lover, a devout Carpenters fan, and just a very generous man. We had struck up a conversation or two via a mutual friend. One of the delights of that year prior to leaving California was a personal tour of the A&M Records offices and studios with him- complete with a private look at a well hidden cardboard pressing of Karen's unreleased solo album jacket. The time with Jon there remains one of the great thrills in my life up until that point- and I thank him, again, for making that possible. 

Pulling the disc out, I liked what I saw. Why is it that the art directors at A&M only seemed to get how to market the Carpenters mostly only after Karen's passing? Ironic and frustrating. The elegant photo made for a cover almost as good as that of "Horizon".

On to the music. As always, a package from Jon meant delights were to be found inside! Much to my surprise, it was a Carpenters album. I did not know it had been released. My schedule immediately changed, and as was my custom, I blocked out the world by putting on my very expensive headphones, settling into my favorite "stereo chair". I was unprepared for what I was about to hear.

The title track was sumptuous- sleek, sexy, and very contemporary. Karen's voice was as incredible as always, but the arrangement and instrumentation sounded like something from "Smooth Jazz Radio" and outtakes from my favorite Michael Jackson album "Off the Wall".  It was only later that I would find there were reasons for this comparison, including the work of Rod Temperton and Phil Ramone, the "East Coast Quincy Jones". I was instantly smitten by Karen's voice and talent as if it were the first time I had ever heard her sing. 

With an opening like that, I was prepared for the next song to be a let down. But it wasn't at all! "Where Do I Go From Here?", a Barry Manilow classic from the television broadcast, sounded even better than I had remembered. Barry's "Even Now" is his best album, in my opinion, and to this day, I can only imagine an engineered duet a la Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond's classic "You Don't Bring Me Flowers". Richard's arrangement and Karen's moving performance are every bit as spine tingling as the version I first heard. "Chill Factor", indeed! And quite in synch with how I felt about winter coming.

Being this album was made up of outtakes and rarities, I expected some change in flavor. "The Uninvited Guest" came next, and it is not a song I particularly enjoy. Neither when I first heard it or almost 25 years later. Granted, it is from the "Made in America" sessions, when Richard worked hard to bring them a comeback hit, and when Karen's voice was encouraged to be lightweight and pushed more in the background to create a different over all feel- something I did not appreciate. Additionally, I tend to really listen to lyrics, and "victim" songs generally do not appeal to me. I'll admit to a few exceptions, however. "The Uninvited Guest" is not a throwaway cut, as I can hear the work that went into it, but it is a song I tend to skip most of the time. 

"If We Try". Ah, what can I say? I love this song. Everything about it just grips me. Smooth, fresh, and invitingly warm. Of the four cuts from Karen's solo album, this one is my most favored. Give me a saxophone, and more likely than not, I will find it to be something I like. As with "Lovelines" before it, Karen sounds great. (Oh, those low notes!) There's an effortlessness to her vocals on this track that I find on some early Carpenters songs. It's entirely different in most every way from "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" from the "Close to You" album, but I am still reminded of it in some manner. (Can any of you reading musicians tell me why?) Had the solo album seen release when initially intended, in my mind, this would be the FM radio cut to off play the Top 40 single "If I Had You". Four songs into the album, and I was pleasantly surprised for a bunch of outtakes.

I knew what was coming next, and I was very excited. "When I Fall in Love" is one of the greatest songs of all time and Karen's version one of the best ever. The Carpenters' television specials mostly suffered from too much sugar and cuteness. "Music, Music, Music" stood out from the pack to good result. Listening to this selection off the television, I was certain there was a full length version. Remembering it was a song that was supposed to be on their aborted 1978 studio album, I couldn't wait to give it a listen. Not a shred of disappointment, just a sadness that Richard and Karen never cut a full disc of these timeless songs. Greatness in three minutes!

When Karen coos, singing a lyric like "Serenade me by the light of the moon", I'm instantly captivated. There's this romantic element that I have always loved in Carpenters' music, starting way back with the song that hooked me, "We've Only Just Begun". A hopeful innocence, an unexpected sensuality, that is much more appealing to me than the raunchy lyrics and posing by some of today's female superstars. "Kiss Me the Way You Did Last Night" is another "Made in America" outtake. Had it been included, it would have been a stronger, more successful single than "Touch Me When We're Dancing".  With a great melody, tons of backing vocals, and a stunning guitar solo by Tony Peluso, this little song is one I never skip over- and it is easily in my top ten list of favorite recordings by the duo. Why has it not gained more exposure by being placed on the various compilations?

On the album version of the collection, this ended Side One. At half-time, I'd conclude this to be a very successful and cohesive collection. Side Two? Easily a disappointment with a few highlights.

In a jarringly stark contrast to "Kiss Me", I regularly skip over the one following it. The song that opens the second side is everything I hate about most of the current music scene. "Remember When Lovin' Took All Night" crosses too many lines in lyric and vocal arrangement. Olivia Newton-John's black leather persona meets Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby". Ugh- and I really like both Olivia and Donna. Karen deserves better than this John Farrar song, and the fact that she chose it to be included on her solo collection tells me she was too desperate to break out of her good two shoes image once and for all and obviously ready to compromise to get a hit. It's an inappropriate way to begin "Side Two" of the disc, as it is not nearly as enjoyable or cohesive as the first five songs.

The next song is somewhat of a rebound. "You're the One". Another "Karen Carpenter Story" cut. It was also recorded by Jane Oliver, a woman with a delicate and lovely voice. It's a beautiful song, but there's a part of me that checks out beyond the catching opening line. Maybe there's just too much drama in it. The bridge of the song is too over the top for the rest of it, and I find the simplicity I enjoyed at the start is lost by the end. 

The Hawaiian inspired "Honolulu City Lights" is this album's musical equivalent of "Sandy" on "A Kind of Hush". Pretty sounding fluff that is entirely passable, entirely forgettable. The introduction to the song seems uninspired, with Richard phoning it in and Karen herself seeming very disinterested. This selection fit well when it first appeared on the Japanese "Anthology" collection as an outtake, but it seems out of place here. 

Covering a song by Jimmy and Kristy McNichol seems like a bad idea to anyone familiar with 70's sitcoms and a heart for good music. They were annoyingly sweet, sugary, and presented to the public as All-American, white bread, bland, performers. Sound familiar? Certainly, following in their footsteps should be the kiss of death to a music career. Yet, somehow, in spite of all the reasons not to, Richard decided he and Karen needed to cover their song, "Slow Dance". I'll be the first to admit the lyrics are young for Karen, but if you can get past that piece, the recording is actually very much akin to "Touch Me When We're Dancing". Innocently sensual with an arrangement that draws you in and makes you listen to the flourishes along with Karen's vocals. It's not a masterpiece, but it isn't "Druscilla Penny" either- and much better than the album's previous selection. 

Time for a Karen solo number- and just in time. "If I Had You" ranks among her best without Richard. There lyrics sound convincingly autobiographical. The music feels fresh with a challenging arrangement and lots of vocal play. Would it have been Top 10 if released when it was intended to be? Most likely but still a question mark. My bet is by 1979 or 1980, the Carpenters had gone too far into no man's land for Karen to score a solo hit with this. But it could have primed radio for another selection. Especially with a new sound and without Richard on it. Truth is, this very fact could have been what really scared A&M executives and Richard himself: a hit without Richard would have effectively been the end of the Carpenters. Too bad, we will never know for sure.

Closing out the album with the 1978 outtake "Little Girl Blue" leaves a very sour taste in my mouth, even after all these years. Beautifully arranged and sung, but it is ultimately just another downer cut that kills the freshness of the first half of the album. I routinely skip it. 

Far worse, at first listen it reminded me of the bitter truth: Karen was dead, and her life was a long  and lonely struggle against the demons of anorexia. The fight she didn't win. It's not the way I wanted to remember her, and by placing this at the end of a disc, Richard really only reinforces the sad story of her demise. That in itself is a contrast compared to "Voice of the Heart" where the closer is "Look to Your Dreams".  This left me sweetly melancholy but hopeful. My guess it Richard was settling into his new reality when putting together "Lovelines", and good and bad, the disc was still a bittersweet reminder of a duo whose career was also cut short when Karen's life ended.

The end of the 80's brought a new decade of changes for me as well... and Karen and Richard's music would be just as impactful and present, just not in ways I ever expected. Where do I go from here?

This post is part of a continuing series on the Carpenters and their albums. All part history, music review, and lots of photos. You can search the blog and start with "Ticket to Ride", then "Close to You" etc. Of course, there are always Carpenters related posts sprinkled throughout the 1000 plus posts as well...

(Art copyright A&M Records.)

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