November 23, 2012

Carpenters Celebrate the Christmas Season


A long-standing family tradition is to not decorate the house or play Christmas music until the Friday after Thanksgiving. And not just any Christmas music is played. Karen and Richard Carpenter's classic Christmas Portrait is always the first to open the season. 

So, to open the season, here are my reviews on the two Christmas discs from my favorite duo.
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Richard and Karen Carpenter's Christmas Portrait was the culmination of the longest wait ever for a full length Christmas recording. Not just of the decade but by any recording artist. From the 1970 release of their first holiday recording Merry Christmas Darling, fans waited and waited for the Carpenters to complete an album full of old favorites and new songs dedicated to the season. The gorgeous song written by Richard and Frank Pooler achieved instant standard status upon first play, with Karen's deep and warm vocals played against Richard's lush arrangements and Frank's romantic lyrics. It was constantly on my turntable.

The near decade in between the single and the album had been far from unkind, however, with the duo turning out hit after hit. Things began to slow after the release of The Singles: 1969 - 1973, but Karen and Richard were still quite productive. A new arrangement of the seasonal classic "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" came in 1974 along with an appearance on Perry Como's Christmas special. (Find it and watch Karen perform "It's Impossible"- one of her most tender readings of a song ever!) "Please Mr. Postman" ended '74 as a worldwide smash.

Horizon arrived in 1975, with A Kind of Hush coming the following year. Although both discs contain some of their best individual recordings ("Only Yesterday", "Solitaire", and Desperado" from the first, and "I Need to Be in Love" and "One More Time" from the latter), neither produced the sales of years previously.

The duo's next album in 1977, Passage, was not the large hit they wanted and their career so desperately needed. The result was fun, playful, and largely uninspired. Even die-hard fans like myself started to move on to other interests.

I discovered that in the midst of recording Passage, the Carpenters were also beginning to record for another project at the same time this eclectic album was forming. Perhaps both the A&M Records executives and Karen and Richard expected the Christmas recordings to be completed in time for a 1977 release, as their second television special "The Carpenters at Christmas" was to air in early December.


Above- the photos that inspired Robert Tanenbaum's beautiful portrait

My personal life was taking a dramatic downturn as well. My post high school life had been an interesting mix of fear, loneliness, increasing depression, and anticipation. I began to search for greater meaning in life than what I could see. After years of looking into various world religions- and after a near disastrous automobile accident shortly after seeing the Carpenters in Las Vegas- I found myself at an evening gathering at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa. A young evangelist, Greg Laurie, presented the truth to me as shared in the Bible: I was a sinner, a broken man, and the only way to a relationship with God and a restored life was through faith in Jesus Christ. God Himself reaching down to man and not man's efforts to reach Him. What a difference it made to hear about a god who loved his creation.

My heart jumped as I chose to make a decision to embrace Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. I knew I'd have to live differently, and I was ready. As I prayed for a new beginning, I hoped for the best. The result was better than I ever expected. For the next six months, my depression was replaced with hope and joy. My friends and family could not believe the transformation. Neither could I!

Christmas was very different that year. Finally, all those hymns made sense- and watching and listening to Karen sing them touched me deeply. By this point, I was also smart enough to understand a Christmas album had to be coming soon.

As the following year progressed, many good things began to happen in my life. My job situation improved greatly, I formed some deep friendships, and even though life was more back to normal with expected ups and downs, I had peace and hope. Guess my faith "stuck", and I'd never go back to my old life.

On the musical front, things were fairly uninteresting. I was thrilled to finally hear something new from Karen and Richard. "I Believe You" was a terrific little single that got next to no airplay, but my lengthy wait was finally rewarded again when the Christmas Portrait album hit the shelves. Couldn't wait to get it home! Little did I know the album would end up being one of my favorites by them and a very personal one- one that would always touch me deeply.

Finally, the album was out of the sleeve and on the turntable. I patiently listened through the opening songs. Finally Karen came in singing "Frosted window panes"...

I was mesmerized. What an introduction Richard designed for his favorite vocalist! Thirty-two years later, hearing her opening to "Christmas Waltz" still signals the beginning of the season, and Christmas Portrait is the traditional first disc played in our house. (And one played only after Thanksgiving!)


The album, continued to sparkle. Hearing the Carpenters band sing on "Sleigh Ride" was great fun! The new single "Christmas Song" made famous by Nat King Cole and recorded by seemingly thousands of other vocalists, was a natural choice for Karen's voice. It was at that moment of first hearing it that I realized Karen was the new voice of Christmas for my generation. Considering the millions of copies sold, I am sure I am not alone in this assessment.

Richard was oft-quoted for his influences being the "3Bs" (the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach) but here on their first Christmas release, it is clearly Spike Jones, the 40s bandleader with his group, the City Slickers. (Does the name sound familiar? Remember their newer live show or the 1st TV special?) Check out Spike's holiday albums in its various rereleased forms, and you'll find similar song choices, medleys, and arrangements. That said, Richard's genius is evident here. Between the arrangements of Peter Knight and the concept of the album, not including his terrific playing throughout, Richard's contribution is unmistakable. This album is as solid and strong as any of their previous work, and it holds it own against any modern day releases.



There are plenty of additional gems on the disc. One of my personal favorites is "First Snowfall/Let It Snow". The playful arrangement is quite fun but when Karen's voice is overdubbed on the former and she emotes on the phrase "if you really hold me tight" on the latter, it's pure magic. Next, Richard's "Carol of the Bells" is stunning. The newly rerecorded "Merry Christmas Darling" is made even more beautiful by Karen's softer vocal approach. And it just keeps getting better. The disc's closing "Ave Maria" reveals how powerful and under control her voice was. It also shows how unmatched it is by those vocalists of her day and those of ours. How many other artists have dared to perform such a demanding piece?

Christmas Portrait was an instant success and became a radio staple for the decades. Beginning with the following season, recording artists began to mine the gold found by the recent success of Karen and Richard, and they recorded their own holiday albums. As with their earlier work, others once more followed the duo's instincts and groundbreaking lead.

Since Karen's untimely death, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" has taken on a poignancy stronger than its already heartfelt lyrics. Her passing means the end of an era. Beyond the later release of "An Old Fashioned Christmas" in 1984, there is not much Carpenters material left other than television show recordings, and the chance for additional Christmas albums is gone. Over and over again, Richard has started and stopped work on his own collection of holiday tunes. Will we ever see it? If only in my dreams...

Whereas the gorgeous and definitive Christmas Portrait has been rightfully so been described by Richard Carpenter as his sister's first solo album, An Old Fashioned Christmas feels more like his first solo album with Karen guesting.

After Karen's tragic passing in 1983, I knew the days of the Carpenters were sadly over. Instinctively, I expected greatest hits compilations, perhaps one disc of unreleased material, and an eventual solo project from Richard. An Old Fashioned Christmas came as a surprise to me when it was released in the fall of the following year. The beautiful Voice of the Heart album had only been in release for a year, but I suppose it made sense to Richard and the executives of A&M Records to release another disc so soon.

In my memory, I recalled multiple but unused songs being recorded for Christmas Portrait when it was first intended as a double length album. I was still quite surprised and very delighted to find Richard had finished work on a second volume of Christmas music. It had to have been a very difficult labor of love for him.

It was still a season of vinyl then, even though compact discs had made their way into the market. There was no accompanying disc to be found for this release- only chrome tape for the cassette release- therefore, my first view of the album cover was large in scale as well as being wonderful to behold. It was another artistic take on the Norman Rockwell look and feel of the first disc's cover, but as with the music it contains, not nearly as charming or effective. I do appreciate the slight nod to Karen's well known love of Disneyland, as the elf on the right wears a pair of Mickey Mouse ears!

Similarly to the 1978 album, Richard begins the proceedings with a crisply sung "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear". After a quite lengthy choral and instrumental medley that includes slivers of Richard's vocals, the title song arrives, offering sweet sentiments but a fairly mundane melody, arrangement, and performance. Written in 1984 for this collection, An Old Fashioned Christmas is a nice composition with long time lyricist John Bettis, but it is not a classic to be cherished.

Immediately thereafter, Richard's stunning instrumental reading of "O Holy Night" begins. It is a powerful piece of music masterfully played. This is my favorite Christmas song, and few singers effectively capture the substance and drama of the lyrics.

Richard's performance of it is so well done, I do not miss the words. In fact, it seems to bring me to a place of worship for the God who became Man for our sake. Not many instrumentals have that effect on me! In fact, for his part, it's Richard's skills as pianist that are his strength here throughout the album.

After about fifteen minutes of music, Karen finally steps in. When her warm, gorgeous voice comes in on "Home for the Holidays", showcasing her lower register. It's in that deep part of her range that reminds no other singer can compare to her! Hearing Karen, the game instantly changes, reminding the listener this is a Carpenters album! She immediately brings a cheeriness, a buoyancy to the disc but also an instant and underlying sadness as we remember she is gone. The tune is quite charming but brief at a length of just over two minutes. Here is the pattern of this album: lots of Richard, little of Karen. By necessity, on an album comprising roughly 49 minutes of music, Karen's vocals make up only about 18 minutes total!

Richard's next instrumental medley is a bright blending of "Here Comes Santa Claus", "Frosty the Snowman", "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", and "Good King Wenceslas". It feels fresh and sparkling, in direct contrast to the somberness of the next number, Karen's intimate and yearning "Little Altar Boy".

On the vinyl version of the album, this song ends "Side One". It also emotionally divides the collection with its stark, desperate lyrics. Karen's touching plea for intercession and ultimate redemption for her lost life burned in my ears from first listen. When a vocalist whose personal life held inner turmoil and ended in tragedy, these lyrics take on a haunting, new significance. "Little Altar Boy" is the spiritual equivalent of the duo's earlier "Goodbye to Love". She quietly screams to be noticed and loved.


Thankfully, "Side Two" begins with the triumphant "Do You Hear What I Hear?" In contrast to his vocals elsewhere, Richard sounds absolutely confident and terrific. Yet, this is ultimately a command performance by Karen. As the music builds to its crescendo, Karen's singing matches the song, ending in a powerful presentation of the last word, "light". For a vocalist known for her intimate, warm, soft voice and nuanced phrasing, this last note reminds us she was in control of that gift. Here, she belts it out with the best.

If we've heard Karen, it means it is once again time for Richard. "My Favorite Things" seems an odd choice and is not one of my favorite selections.

"He Came Here For Me". It is a testament to Richard's knack for finding great material that this song was ever recorded. Again, Karen goes to the lower end of her range to good effect. To my ears, the overall result is not as strong as "Little Altar Boy", but I so appreciate the richness of the lyrics:

"Born in a stable He came here for me
born of a virgin He came here for me
God's only son come to set the world free,
born of God's love and He came here for me.
Savior, of the world I praise thee

Jesus, Lamb of God, I pray to thee, hear me
As I praise thy birth bend down thy ear and hear my prayer
Over a stable a star shone so bright,
guiding three wise men who rode through the night
He was called baby Jesus, He came here for me,
Born to this world, then He died here for me."

From the sacred to the secular, Karen and Richard follow up the previous selection with their 1974 recording of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". This slower dreamy version perfectly shows off their skills. Richard's terrific arrangement allows Karen to take center stage. In contrast to the original release, the saxophone solo has been entirely reimagined. For the record, I enjoy each saxophone solo for different reasons. On this take, it brings a smooth jazz feel to the song, very appropriate and contemporary for its inclusion a decade later. (Just a side note here: I loved watching Karen and Richard perform this on Perry Como's Christmas special. She looks great!)


What can I say about "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" I was smitten at first listening! The 1940's produced some of my most loved recordings, and I had long thought Karen and Richard should be doing these kinds of classics. The inclusion of "I Can Dream Can't I?" on the Carpenters' masterpiece album "Horizon" confirmed I was right. Certainly, there are stronger performances on this holiday collection, but this romantic piece is my personal favorite. It is the perfect match of singer, song, arrangement and production.

After three vocals in a row by Karen, Richard's selections from "The Nutcracker" are a great way to draw near to the album's end. Somehow, he makes this sound new, even though the music has been heard for decades. Just beautiful.

The album's closer, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", was a song I did not remember and one that took me awhile to appreciate. "Lower register" and perfectly sung- check. Well arranged and produced- check. But what was it about the song that I just didn't like? Took years for me to figure it out. The song signifies the end of an era for me. Really, for all of us.

Television outtakes, aside, there would be no more Christmas music from the duo. Karen and Richard's holiday themed television specials would not see release. Richard's long discussed solo Christmas album would be started, delayed, and ultimately shelved. (In 2002, he would go on to give two songs to Japanese vocalist Seiko Matsuda: "Christmas Turned Blue" and "December Morn".)

In my opinion, the Carpenters and Christmas go together. Christmas music means Carpenters albums. Karen's is the voice of the season, and "Christmas Portrait" is always the first disc played in our home when I control the player. It will always be that way. The second disc is good too, but regardless of its many charms, it is a patchwork project.

Thankfully, even though "An Old Fashioned Christmas" would be their last holiday release, Richard had more Carpenters music ahead for their fans- and in some ways, for posthumous releases, the best was yet to come.
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This post is only one piece in a series focusing on Karen and Richard Carpenter, a review of their many albums and the impact of their music on my life. If you'd like to read the entire series, begin here.

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