February 4, 2013

Thirty Years Without Karen Carpenter- and a Look at Her Solo Album

On the 30th Anniversary of the passing of Karen Carpenter, it seems most appropriate to offer my review of her one and only solo album. I've reviewed all the albums of Karen and Richard Carpenter up until this point in time, but I can think of no better tribute to my favorite vocalist. (You can follow this series of album reviews beginning here.)

By 1996 when this disc was finally released, my family had relocated to Denver, living in the area for about seven years. Far away from California, where any Carpenters news seemed to come from in the years after her death. Obviously it was a tricky task to balance commerce and good taste, but under the steady and well thought out leadership of Richard Carpenter, albums by the duo now included a new Christmas collection and various compilations of all sizes. Fans were grateful, but the unreleased Holy Grail was Karen's solo recording.

The release of Karen's album was alternatively denied and approved, seemingly dependent on the mood of Richard from year to year. Selected cuts appeared on Lovelines and the boxed set From the Top, but collectors on the inside had copies of her work that were passed around from person to person. Richard must have known that eventually it would all leak out, so along with a change of heart about the recordings, Karen Carpenter's one and only solo album finally saw the light of day. Finally.

As with all pending releases, I watched the Billboard magazine articles and called A&M Records several times to confirm the release date. Eventually, it really was a go, and I had the treasured piece in my possession. Disc in hand at last, I couldn't wait to play it.

Before I talk about the art within, let's begin with the obvious comment most any fan would make: The album cover is just horrible, almost as if it were designed to make buyers bypass it and the music inside.

Take a look at the photo below from which this cover was designed. Karen never looked more compelling, beautiful, and contemporary. What happened? Who knows.The resulting cover is another testimony to the inept minds at A&M Records when it came to marketing the duo.

Based on the standards of the day, Karen was not a stunning beauty but more like the sweet girl next door. Yet, these Claude Mougin photographs show how she could certainly hold her own when it came to presenting herself in a most positive light with stylists working on her side. Many variations for these photos, used throughout this review, have surfaced over time. They give us a small idea of what the original album cover and artwork would look like.

This is a representation of the cover I saw- by artist Chris Tassin.

Happily, I can say that I have seen that album cover for myself. Incredibly for an ordinary fan, I was able to get a brief tour of A&M back in 1989. Via the old friend of a friend of a friend route, a man I knew arranged a tour of the Studios for me and just so happened to know someone in the international department. This man held a copy of the cardboard jacket for her solo album, well hidden in his office. I am sure all the remaining ones were destroyed when the album was shelved, but he (and I'm sure a few others) was smart enough to grab one for himself.

We walked into his office, and he carefully pulled the jacket out from its hiding place. Similar to the Carpenters' album Passage, it was a "gatefold" album, where the cover opened like a book to reveal a two page photograph of Karen looking absolutely terrific.

August 2015: This photo appeared on the A&M Corner website.
Obviously the whole album here is all colorized, but it is the cover I saw- with real photos.

The front was the same photo as the cover of what was eventually released but not colorized in greys, browns, and greens. Instead rose, violets, and blues were the tones of choice, her clothes obviously colorized to match. Much in tune with the jazzy, fresh style of the music inside.

When the "Yesterday Once More" compilation album was released after her death, I discovered a very small color photo shown of Karen lounging in a purple chair. This image (below) was the inside of the original solo album but in full scale. I've tried to enlarge it to give you a better idea.

Above, the colors intended for Karen's solo album in three versions-
(Last photo added on May 17th, 2013
thanks to my friend Chris at A&M Corner.)
 and below, a smaller representation of the full photograph
used for the inside of it.

A brilliant scan of it in sepia. Thank you to Harry from the A&M Corner!

What a treasure in its intended color and presentation! (And I want to thank Harry from the great A&M Corner for this sepia toned scan above. You just have to check out that site if you have any interest in A&M Records and all the great acts that recorded on the label.) The left side was the back of the album and had a photo of Karen holding up the back of her hair. I don't remember seeing any song titles at all. The front only said "Karen Carpenter" in a highly stylized design which looked like her signature. 

Why am I beginning a review of her solo album with such a strong commentary on the photos and artwork used to present it? For artists of such talent and an incredibly loyal following that made the company bankfuls of money, the Carpenters were repeatedly poorly represented by A&M to the buying public. In a sense, it was the ultimate betrayal, their botched image a constant slap in the face, an open wound from which neither Karen or Richard ever recovered. I will not say it contributed to their defensiveness about their music, her personal struggles with anorexia nervosa and his with addictions, but this thought has crossed my mind. Regardless, even if this image problem contributed to their sales decline, it did also set the stage for Karen to record solo and break free from it.

When the 1976 album A Kind of Hush performed poorly following The Singles 1969 - 1973 and Horizon, Richard and Karen knew it was time for change. Word went out that Richard and A&M were looking for a new producer, but no one would touch the duo, fearing career suicide. It fell back in Richard's tired and frustrated hands to retool their sound and recharge their image. It had to be done if they were going to continue to have success in the next decade.

The resulting album was adventurous and partially satisfying but not financially successful. After the collective sales thud of Passage at home but respect for the gorgeous Christmas Portrait that followed the next year, it was clear the duo still needed a new direction. The stress was getting to them. Karen was in denial about her illness. Richard was in process of owning his, taking bold steps to remedy his personal health problem, but it did not solve the issues around their professional troubles and sagging chart success.

During Richard's stint in rehab, Karen decided the time was right to record without him. In Richard's defense, this must have hurt him deeply. While he struggled with his demons, she was in a sense moving on without him. As with many other armchair counselors and professional ones as well, after the fact of her death, I did see her move as a cry for help as well. Yet how this must have damaged their relationship as well as dented Richard's already low confidence regarding his future in an industry he loved. Ultimately, perhaps even reluctantly, Richard gave his blessing to the solo project. It was a very risky move professionally and relationally for Karen to move away from the sister and brother team, perhaps always tainting Richard's view and acceptance of her album. Yet, professionally, Karen's instincts were right on the money. Her album would have changed perceptions of the duo as well as establishing her as a versatile vocalist. It would be a nice break in between Carpenters projects while injecting new life into their career.

Fun in the studio.
Phil Ramone, known as The "East Coast Quincy Jones" signed on as producer for Karen's album. His work with many popular artists of the day made him a savvy choice ensuring a fresh approach and sound. Work was under way with a diverse selection of songwriters and Billy Joel's backup band set to go in the studio. The sensual jazz grooves and rock textures played excellently against her silky voice. This made for one very interesting disc- something that couldn't be said for the duo's 1978 single "I Believe You". That was just more of the same sound as in years past.

By most accounts, Karen and Phil worked well and hard together. The resulting product shocked A&M executives as well as Richard. As every die-hard Karen fan knows, the release date never occurred as originally planned. Richard was ready to go back to work, and A&M didn't want to risk the long term profit of their duo by playing with Karen's image. So, the bold new direction in music, beautiful photographs, and stunning art design, sat together in the vaults perhaps waiting for the right time.

Richard and the executives at A&M Records
must have liked the solo album photographs.
This one resurfaced as the cover of "Voice of the Heart" in 1983.

Karen's death in 1983 made everyone in the industry and the listening public reevaluate Carpenters music and especially her vocal expertise. Accolades came in as usual, fully expected when an entertainer passes away. This continued on for several years with tributes, music collections, and a very successful U.S. television biography. Perhaps no one did more reflection on her work and life than Richard, who finally realized her solo album revealed a piece of Karen that had to come to light.

In bastardized form, the new album cover was a visual disaster, making me cringe. However I would soon discover that the music contained within was an imperfect and very personal triumph.

Continuing a long tradition that would have few chances to be repeated in the future, I gently removed the disc and placed it in my player. Headphones on and volume turned up, I settled into my favorite chair, closed my eyes, and prepared to be mesmerized.

Karen makes it clear this is her album. No sight of Richard but in the credits.

The opening drum line of Lovelines firmly and quickly establishes this is no Carpenters album. When Karen sings, "Baby, come on and take me", you just know she's moved on and her "wonderland" destination is clearly not Disneyland. Karen's plea later in the song, "Make me cry out loud for more", dispels any further doubts about what she intends. Is is explicit? Yes. It's not Madonna's "Like a Virgin", but it does get the point across. Does it establish a new image for the girl next door, the woman we thought we knew? Absolutely.

It is not just the lyric content that breaks ground. Musically, the jazz, disco, rock, and in one case, folk tunes and arrangements showcase her versatility. The listener's ears become opened to all the possibilities before her, and it is a thrill to hear Karen in a brand new setting. 

Karen and Phil Ramone in the studio.

The obvious similarities to the sounds of Michael Jackson's album Off the Wall come to mind with the first cut. I really do enjoy Michael's performances and the tight Quincy Jones production. Off the Wall is my favorite of his recordings and one of my favorite desert island discs. Therefore the combination of a similar production style and sound from Michael's smash disc partnered with Karen's sumptuous voice- well, ear candy to the extreme. I can only imagine how she would have sung "Rock with You" and the title track. Both were Rod Temperton (Heatwave) songs she rejected. With the layered vocals and sophisticated arrangements, I know I would have loved them. Instead, Karen chose Lovelines and If We Try, both very effective and the latter one of my favorites. 

Not all of the songs on the disc had this same slick arrangement and production that I now expected. The second cut, All Because of You, is a stripped down, bare, folk number. Its sparse presentation and delivery make it startlingly effective, even if it is off the radar of what I thought would have happened next. This move shrewdly sets the listener up to expect anything, any style next. I'll admit, this song is not one of my favorites, but I have grown to appreciate what was accomplished.

Right after this surprise comes fan favorite, the single If I Had You. As the only release from the album, the song was a surprising and solid hit on the Billboard Adult Contemporary music charts. It sounds great even to this day, with an arrangement that is still fresh. Honestly, I really like this song, but I may be the only one who finds the frantic ending a bit much. 

With a guitar driven opening, Making Love in the Afternoon with Peter Cetera pleasantly contrasts with the pieces before it. The Beatles reference is a playful and sweet nod to the past. I do not understand why the former lead singer of Chicago stayed as a background vocalist when he and Karen sound just so good together. Here's a sacrilegious thought: It's really fun to hear Karen harmonize with someone who isn't Richard. There, I said it. The tune is so fresh in both lyric and sound, it should have been the follow up single. It's that good. Maybe one day, Richard will entice Peter to record a few stanzas and create a full duet. Sure.

Ever wonder what would have happened had Richard and Karen recorded a smooth jazz album? "If We Try" suggests where "This Masquerade" would have lead in years to come. It's a smart choice for Karen. With the up front vocals that made Horizon sound so great and a sophisticated arrangement with an adult but not brash lyric line, cut number five is the best of the bunch so far.  I never tire of hearing it. 

From the best to the worst, let me say I hated "Remember When Lovin' Took All Night" from the first listen. This is where I agree with Richard- Ramone had her singing too high on this, and I hate the lyrics. Karen trades sensuality for blatant sexuality here, doing her no favors. Olivia Newton-John's producer John Farrar wrote this number which sounds like a Soul Kiss reject, moaning and all. In contrast to the previous song, I skip this one regularly. Yes, it really is that bad, unworthy of what Karen could accomplish. 

A brief detour: Interestingly, Terry Ellis, Karen's old boyfriend, true love, and British music executive was quoted in Pat Benetar's 2010 autobiography "Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir" regarding the dispute over photo shoot for Pat's 1982 album, Get Nervous

"American women are so beautiful but don't know how to use their sexuality...". 

Did Terry's view influence Karen's song choice when viewing friend Olivia's transition- and sales surge- from girl next door to vamp? Was he the one directing her to a more appealing and timely visual presentation? As has been stated by other writers, Karen had a wonderfully sensual voice but was rarely presented that way. This was due to Richard's preferences as well as his understanding that Karen had the voice of her generation. She was easily equal to the great vocalists of old, and he desired to present her on par with them for the benefit of a lengthy career. Wise move overall, I'd say, but the duo did need a revamp of their image to stay current.

Back to the music...

Time for a little rock. Sure, Karen goes up the scale again on "Still in Love With You", but the guitar/bass combination keeps this more grounded, making it a much more successful recording.

Rare color version of the photo used in People magazine after Karen's passing.

After one disaster followed by one partial misfire, I was pretty worried about hearing Karen tackle disco. I've heard disco songs that were works of art (Donna Summer's elegant "MacArthur Park") to pure disasters masquerading as dance/pop. I don't know why I was worried (or Richard) for that matter. Karen succeeds flawlessly as her voice soars in "My Body Keeps Changing My Mind". She provides the contrasting warmth to a very cool arrangement- definitely a unique angle and right on target. Phil Ramone created a fine environment for her to work within the context of this genre. The right remix would have created a club smash. I almost hit the repeat button, but I couldn't wait to hear the next song.

There are many things you could say about Richard and the tunes he chose for he and Karen to record. But one thing you have to admire is his generally good set of ears. He correctly mined "Make Believe It's Your First Time" from Karen's solo album to record. However, proving the old adage "Sometimes Less is More", he just screwed it up in comparison to the wise restraint shown in arranging her solo version of it. On this version, the tune tenderly gives us some of the "old Karen", intimacy without bathing her in too many strings and too many singers, showcasing her delicate and very personal performance. Just beautiful.

The playful take almost mandated by the lyrics of "I Guess I Just Lost My Head" results in a very radio friendly song that really appeals to me. Her layered vocals just draw me in. My guess is Karen had a great time recording this. It's just so "young soul", so light hearted, so entirely against her melancholy image. Totally enjoyable.

Time for a confession: I had heard "Still Crazy After All These Years" a few years before its release on the Carpenters From the Top boxed set. The Paul Simon modern day standard was the single song I wanted to hear from all her solo sessions. I was not disappointed. When I popped that cassette into my player, it became an instant favorite. I loved it. It pulled me into the song just like the first time I had heard "We've Only Just Begun". I just knew Karen had this kind of song in her. Now if she would have just recorded Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me"...

I must say, the mix of Still Crazy that appeared on her solo disc is not as good as the ones Richard commissioned for those on Lovelines or From the Top. The original mix sounds less polished, less finished, and does not present Karen as well. It was still my favorite song on the disc. That is, until I heard the final one.

"Last One Singin' the Blues" stands out as a relevation- Karen as smart, suave, sultry and, for once, in control. My understanding is this song was one of many that came about because A&M executives asked she and Phil to do some additional recording. Regardless, it's a sassy Karen we encounter in these clever lyrics as she puts her wayward man in his place. Actually, I loved this so so much, I hit the repeat button, well repeatedly, to play it again instead of going back to the beginning of the album.

Getting to the end of such a long awaited disc was a mixed blessing. On one hand, it was a rich and rewarding piece of art. It reflected a piece of Karen's heart in audio form, and I thoroughly loved it. She chose the songs. She approved the mixes. She chose the photographs. It was a personal reflection of where she was at that point in her life. It wasn't flawless, but it was hers. Under that seemingly fragile exterior and incredibly silky voice, Karen was a smart and tough business woman who loved her vocation and her gift. She just knew this solo album would have breathed life into she and Richard's stalling careers, and she staked all she had - money, family approval, etc.- to make it happen. Karen's lone comment in the album liner notes says it all, "Dedicated to my brother Richard with all my heart". Word has it that Richard wept when he was told about his sister's words. I believe he finally understood her intent with the project.

The other side of this mixed blessing was the solo album only highlighted what could and should have been, both professionally and personally. Fans both in the industry and those outside have long played this game of fantasy, guessing what would have happened in her career as well as her love life. I'm guilty as charged.

On my list of favorites, Karen Carpenter, ranks up there with the best of the albums by the duo. Why?

Ultimately, it almost doesn't matter who produced this set. No arrangement or production can outshine The Voice. Karen was that special, that unique, that gifted. To his credit and the success of the project, Phil Ramone does take her places Richard never dared. Why some would cry "foul", for her choices, I cry "triumph". Had this varied and overall excellent disc debuted in 1980 as planned, certainly the Carpenters slump would have ended. And yes, possibly, Karen's tragic ending may have changed to happily ever after. 

As for me, the release of this disc was also the end of an era. Without intending to, musically, I could now let the past be the past. It was time to move on. Until the next release Richard had up his sleeve...

Want more articles on Karen? There are over 80 posts on this blog in which she is mentioned. Start with the album reviews below ...
Or consider this link which talks about her last hours and the documentary that was made. Or rare photos or...

My Original Carpenters album reviews are below in chronological order, followed by my "Revisited Fresh Look" several years later.  

A very special thanks to those folks who constructed The Complete Carpenters Recording Resource, to "Rick- An Ordinary Fool" for so many rare scans, and all my friends on the A&M Corner boards. 

My Original Carpenters album reviews:

Offering/Ticket to Ride
Close to You
A Song for You
Now and Then
The Singles 1969-1973
Live In Japan
A Kind of Hush
Live at the Palladium
The Singles 1974-1978
Christmas Portrait
Made in America
Voice of the Heart
An Old Fashioned Christmas
Time (Richard Solo)
Karen Carpenter (Solo)
As Time Goes By

My Revisited Fresh Look at the albums:

Offering / Ticket to Ride
Close to You


NessofBoganville said...

Thankyou for giving us a glimpse at what might have been with the original cover art work and photos. I wish they hadn't ruined it with the 96 release. Sigh.

Mark Taft said...

It really is a shame...

enriquejimenez said...

Hi Mark, I've been reading your blog for a while now, not only for the Disney content, but also for the Carpenters stuff as I am a huge fan as well. Karen's solo album is one of my personal favorites. She recorded some other tracks for this album that weren't released. If you're interested I could share them with you.

Keep up the good work, love the blog!


Colleen Rawlings said...

Hi Enrique, would love to hear the tracks for her solo album that were never released. C

Mark Taft said...

These unreleased tracks are on youtube. Or google/bing them and there are there.

Roxanne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
George McKay said...

Hi thank you for the blog, especially the material near start about the front cover photo.

You ask in passing the question whether KC's anorexia was related to the public image put across by A&M.

I wonder: in the released version of the album cover, compared with the original photograph which you also show, do you think the artwork includes an element of alteration of her face shape/detail? The thinness of her face (and fingers?) seems downplayed on the album cover? I would appreciate any comments here by you and readers.


Mark Taft said...

Perhaps. In later years, there was so much airbrushing and such on their covers that it wouldn't surprise me one bit if her solo album was also touched up. Just recently, I saw a photo of the album cover as I saw it in A&M's offices. It was slightly different than what I remembered. I'll have to dig it up and add it to the article.

Thanks for reading, George!

Mark Taft said...

Roxanne, my apologies, I just realized I never responded to you. I would add "The Shadow of Your Smile" to the list...

Roxanne said...

Were there any Christmas songs that Karen didn't cover that she should have?

Mark Taft said...

Roxanne, I would have really enjoyed Baby It's Cold Outside, Grown Up Christmas List, and Christmas Lullaby.

rts1527 said...

Are you saying that the album was physically produced, as a record with a jacket and then destroyed? I never got that impression from interviews with Richard and Herb Alpert. That is insane.

Mark Taft said...

I know there was a test pressing of the jacket, but I'm not sure the disc was ever actually produced.

ohger1 said...

I have to disagree. While I love Karen's voice and put it second on the planet to Nat Cole, I think this album is a train wreck. Richard may not have been the talented Carpenter, but he was right in this case.

Mark Taft said...

I totally love how decades after she's gone, we are talking about Karen and her incredible voice! Thanks for reading- and there's tons more "Carpenters" articles on this blog, by the way.

Wayne Brasler said...

All these years later I am still listening to everything Karen recorded and still finding new wonders. In a way she is deceptive, because she is that rare singer who sings the songs she recorded as written, digging deep for the deepest meaning without taking liberties with the melodies. It is the toughest way to sing and few singers ever have attempted it regularly (the only other I can think of right now is Anne Murray). I have always felt her best work was ahead of her but it tragically was not to be. I am thankful for the gorgeous and intelligent body of work she left, bless her.

Mark Taft said...

Hey Wayne, I agree with you. Even after all these years of listening, I find new wonders when I hear her. That may have been part of my new series revisiting the albums and give them a fresh listen. Thanks for reading.

Darren Jenkins said...

I enjoyed your tour throughout. Thank you for the detailed info with the amazing photography. To me Karen is the best female singer ever. So glad to have stumbled upon the site. Time to put some Karen on.

Mark Taft said...

Darren, thank you for your kind words!

GB said...

They all were afraid of Karen's solo success. She would be proud to know her album sold well. Shame on all for not supporting her.

TheLarryBrown said...

As tragic as was Karen's passing, I think her best work was far behind here. 1969-1972 Carpenters was magic lightning in a bottle. Later efforts, like this solo record, did not recapture that magic and I think we can speculate that Karen's subsequent career would have followed a similar path to Toni Tennille: A highly a talented singer slogging it out on the circuit but never again reigniting the magic. Karen was sooo great as a 19 year old, there simply wasn't any room to improve. Her later singing has a slightly more polished "exquisite" quality but basically she gave us all she had at 19. I contrast that to the tragedy of Selena who was just at her break through, she had much more to share with the world.

TheLarryBrown said...

Ok you have a right to an opinion, but this album is no train wreck by any stretch of the imagination. I've heard plenty of albums that are pure dreck except for one good song, McCartney is infamous for doing that.

Unknown said...

Hello Mark,
my name is nadine and I`m writing for the german magazine souldisco (https://www.facebook.com/souldiscode/ ) at the moment we are writing on an article about Karen`s only solo album and your review/Blog on the album is outstanding, we would really like to get in touch with you about the article and maybe a collaboration with you as a guest writer if you are interested.
Just drop me line to nadine@souldisco.de hope to hear from you, soon.