November 21, 2014

Carpenters: As Time Goes By Leads to Yesterday Once More

Earlier this year, As Time Goes By, the final album of new music by Carpenters first became available in the United States. Ten years ago. Ten years!

Time does indeed go by. I've been trying to write this article for a very long time, way back since March or so. The problem is, it has been written and rewritten so many times and from many different angles. Why? It's an incredibly personal album for me as well as one that covers many periods of time. I just haven't been able to get a handle on how to approach the review until this final attempt. Now that the direction is determined, it's time to continue on with this retrospective of the Carpenters albums. I began with Offering / Ticket to Ride years ago, so here goes...

After Lovelines in 1989, Karen's solo album finally being released in 1996, and a multitude of compilations since (including their first boxed set From the Top, which I will review later), Richard Carpenter was inundated by requests from fans for every drop of material ever recorded by the duo. Voices from the United States, England and Japan clamored for more. Who could blame them? With the one of a kind voice of Karen Carpenter and Richard's well-thought arrangements, the Carpenters were an act to last generation after generation. As evidenced from interviews with musical artists of every decade, each generation produced a new set of fans, spreading the influence of the duo well beyond the prime of their career.

Looking back on the year 2004, anyone could glance at the charts of Billboard magazine and see it was the year of urban music, headlined by Usher, Alicia Keys, and an upcoming young band fronted by The Voice's Adam Levine, Maroon 5. The music business had changed drastically, and A&M Records itself was a shell of its former glory. Being sold first to PolyGram and then to Universal Music Group which acquired the previous owner, the music industry was generally lost in transformation. The era of the personalized record company as designed by Herb Alpert was over. i-tunes only cemented it.

Under the current state of the business, artists began to view their career, sales opportunities, and musical output differently than in the past. Of course, with Karen's untimely death in 1983, Richard Carpenter had already weathered so much change in career, let alone his personal life.

His first solo release Time was not well received by the buying public in 1987. A pretty good lead single kicked things off, Dusty Springfield singing Something in Your Eyes, but the album tanked. The disc (particularly on vinyl version) would become a collectors item as it went off the charts and out of print rather quickly. (Richard's next solo project would come many years later, and in an odd course of direction, it would be an instrumental version of old Carpenters hits.) With the relative failure of Time in mind, Richard's must have concluded the fans wanted the duo, not really seeing him as a solo artist but instead just the brains behind his sister's focal point voice. With these thoughts in mind of the industry executives as well, new releases that only rehashed their hits continued. Richard eventually came near to the end of the releasable material.

Thankfully, there were enough odds and ends left to consider a rarities disc, and As Time Goes By slowly began to take shape. Seeing the disc as the final one, Richard poured his heart into this project, believing this A&M Records release to be "just for the fans". If there is any truth to the catchphrase "labor of love", this certainly was it.

I had heard of this disc being released in Japan a few years prior, and I bought it as an import when it seemed the release was doomed to not find its way to the States. Just in case. At this point in my life, I was still a life-long fan, but other than a disc with something rare, I wasn't about to buy just another compilation. The money wasn't there. Four teens filled my house and filled my life.

For almost a decade, my AT&T career was now a thing of the past as I had chosen to focus on serving my community as a career choice. Certainly the pay was far less, but the satisfaction of doing something which put my faith in Christ in action made the trade off worth it. Some believed it a mid-life crisis, but my wife and I knew that this career was the right choice for all of us. A very personal note here: When this collection was released, our family was in the middle of a personal crisis which would change us forever. One we thought we would never recover from. Today, looking backward, I can tell you the Lord Jesus really does work out all things for good if we are truly his followers, but it did take some time for us to gain our balance.

Sans logo- a beautiful shot!
Checking the mail everyday, I waited and waited until the package arrived from Japan. In the new century, it wasn't very often a fan of the duo would get to open up a disc with new material. I tore open the mailing envelope very carefully. Disc in hand, I was thrilled (and still am) by the beautiful cover photo by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Full version of the Rolling Stone cover is a collector's item,
and for a decent image, only this truncated version is on the web.
July 4th, 1974 issue of the magazine.

Annie's work graced the Rolling Stone cover of Karen and Richard in years prior. In hindsight, this new and previously unseen photograph is powerful, even moreso than her earlier Rolling Stone cover. Although it's taken during the same sessions in 1974, there's something very different in approach here. Almost prophetic: first a sleeping Karen, exhausted, thin, and finally at rest. Then there's a disgruntled, perhaps angry, Richard looking elsewhere, deep in thought. Some have suggested he's looking after her legacy, ever watchful, and as always, not the focus of the duo.

The best I could do with Photoshop...

Once I got past the cover, I discovered As Time Goes By fills the air with a varied look at the Carpenters' career. There's a mix of early unreleased songs, music from television specials, duets with iconic celebrities from generations past, and bits and pieces which help a fan understand a bit more what went wrong with their career in the late 1970s. Or perhaps why they seemed to have stalled out.

Originally, or should I say, in the first several attempts at this article, my plan was to review each song in the order in which it appears on the disc. It wasn't until several attempts later that I decided I would do so by chronological order of each song's recorded date. This would present a unique view of the disc, bringing it in line with Richard's liner notes encouraging the buyer to look at this as a "one CD boxed set". For better or worse, it would also result in the longest Carpenters album review ever written by me, as I would go into quite a bit of their history and how it effects the selections found on the disc. With that in mind, let's start "From the Top". 

Strangely colored photo from the time with Annie in May 1974.
Was it distorted for the poorly overlooked official Carpenters website?

Both California Dreamin', originally by the Mamas and the Papas, and Nowhere Man by the Beatles would be first on the disc when looked at in order of recorded date. The year was 1967. The duo's first album, Offering, was not yet released nor was our duo even signed to A&M Records. They were recording in bassist Joe Osborn's garage studio. These were the formative years.

The first song displays great ambition by both Karen and Richard. The arrangement is stellar. The cut would be very fitting if it were placed in either album- on Offering (renamed later as Ticket to Ride) or even on Close to You, in the place of the equally creative and ambitious Another Song. Although Karen's voice is young, it's strong and impressive, giving the listener only the vaguest idea of what would lie ahead. Richard's arrangement is one of the best of his earlier work, giving the song its powerful lift. Particularly when compared to the original version.

In contrast to the first tune, the next cut shows covering the Beatles is almost never a good idea. Even for Karen and Richard. Ticket to Ride may be the exception of where it worked in their favor. Not so with Nowhere Man. Once the listener gets past the harmonica intro, the arrangement feels very similar to their first single release, yet not nearly as much a revelation or as successful. It's a bit draggy both in arrangement and in the vocal performance. Ticket is just a better recording all around, even in its original 1969 version versus the exceptional newly recorded one found on The Singles 1969-1973. It is good to have this recording of Nowhere Man if you are a completist (and I am). Please note that there is a version floating around the internet that is "unsweetened". It's very interesting to compare the two, a simple and perfect performance and then the one here enhanced with strings and additional production especially for this release. 

Moving on, the next selection is from September of 1971. And When He Smiles is an interesting piece of work. It's found on a DVD release of BBC's televised concert of the Carpenters first UK television special. By this point in time, the duo were very well known. With several hits in the United States under their belt, it was time to conquer Europe, and they certainly did.

On Smiles, the vibe here is early 70's cool a la A&M. Karen sounds totally relaxed but still perfect. The arrangement brings to mind Love is Surrender as well as sections of the Bacharach Medley found on their Tan album which was released earlier in the same year. The video of the song comes across just as well. There's a playfulness and a joy among all the members of the band. It was clear they were enjoying the work and the success of their labor.

The Perry Como Christmas Special was finally released on DVD in 2013.

The next selection comes a few years later. By 1974, Richard and Karen were established superstars at the top of the charts. With gold records, Number One albums and singles, sold out concerts, and legions of fans all over the world, it was hard to imagine they could go any higher or be under pressure to follow one hit after another. At this point in time, Karen was as her peak vocally, and Richard showed his versatility by the varied textures found on their studio albums. The Singles 1969-1973 had just become one of the best selling albums ever, both in the States and in the United Kingdom. Their next album, the yet-unnamed landmark Horizon, was several months away, eventually finding its release date in the following year. 

To hold fans and radio over, a rehash of an earlier hit from A Song For You was released. It was a testament to their popularity that a song from 1972 would be a hit in 1974, especially when millions of fans had already purchased it on an album, and there had been another new collection, Now & Then,  released in between. 

I was expecting a single from a new album in the Fall of '74, not a Christmas single, but a stunning version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town was put out for the season. That song would end up as part of their appearance on the television special hosted in December of that year by Perry Como, one of Karen and Richard's favorite crooners.

Perry himself was a fan of the duo, having recorded early Carpenters hits, Close to You and We've Only Just Begun, for his album of the same year as his smash single It's Impossible in 1970. In preparation for the show, they would all perform together, singing segments of each other's hits. It was an incredibly good idea as both Karen and Perry had voices in the same timbre; both were very likable and highly respected for their pure, warm tones. Although many songs were put together for the medley, the clear centerpiece is Karen's effortless reading of It's Impossible. The warmth, the yearning, the tenderness in her performance makes it a standout. Had Perry's take on the song not been a hit just a few years earlier, it would have made quite the fitting addition to the music eventually found on Horizon

As with Nowhere Man, another version of the medley can be found on the internet. Richard's liner notes in this disc give a full and detailed explanation of why there are two.

The next selections on this package reveal a turning point in the Carpenters success on the charts, but more importantly, they signal a change in strategy regarding their career. Chronologically, they also fall about in the middle of the selections on this disc.

Screenshot from Lyricist Phil Cody's book, Beyond Words and Music.

Most music critics would label 1975's album Horizon as the duo's most sophisticated effort. It sold very well, especially in the United Kingdom, but it did not have the staying power on the charts of previous releases. The final single release from the disc, the incredible Solitaire, fell shy of the Top Ten.

Rare photo of the Carpenters with Neil Sedaka.

Neil Sedaka was not only the man behind the composition of Solitaire (along with Phil Cody), he also became a thorn in the side of Richard. As their most recent opening act, Sedaka stole the show with his high energy hit-filled performance and violated professional courtesies, causing Richard to have him fired. 

A great pairing for concert goers, a disaster for the duo.

For the first time, bad press came for something more than Karen and Richard's music or image. With less than expected sales of Horizon and its singles, the Sedaka incident, and just being exhausted, both Karen's anorexia and Richard's pill addiction grew even deeper roots. It was time for a change. And this change brought about the next few selections found on As Time Goes By.

Karen with music executive boyfriend Terry Ellis in 1974.

Perhaps it was this changing tide in their sales that made Richard and Karen rethink their direction. This thought process advocated some wholesale changes to their concerts and rethinking their career. They came to fruition after many conversations but most particularly with Karen's then boyfriend, music executive Terry Ellis. He loved Karen, had befriended Richard, and was a force to be reckoned with in the music business. The search began to replace long-time manager Sherwin Bash.

Not sure Jerry Weintraub did them any favors in the long run.

Enter Jerry Weintraub. Superstar manager whose clients included Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, and John Denver, among many others. Richard and Karen were ready for change, and Jerry was ready to move in and take over. Convincing them they had already reached their sales peak, as he felt most acts normally do over time, Jerry talked them into doing their first television special which would air in the Fall. It did well in the ratings, but at times, it also represented them in a less than favorable light.

The newest album released just a few months after Karen and Richard hired WeintraubA Kind of Hush was even softer and more Adult Contemporary than anything the Carpenters had put to vinyl in the past. Although it contained some beautiful leads by Karen, plenty of background vocal layers, and the heartbreakingly autobiographical I Need to Be in Love, this lone album single handedly tossed away any credibility they'd won with Rock and Roll fans while revealing how out of touch the Carpenters were with the record buying public. In the gravest of errors to represent this body of work, someone chose to put out a novelty tune from the 30's as a single. Whether or not it was intentional, this became career sabotage. The disc sold less than Horizon and only produced two solid hits, each ranking lower than those on the previous album.

By the time work started on the television special, it was decided to focus on the best loved hits, interestingly excluding the two found on Hush. This resulted in two medleys, both found on this "one CD boxed set".

Switching places. Both Richard and Karen look terrific here.

The Superstar/Rainy Days and Mondays medley is a studio recording. It's a nice piece with added harmonica and strings. Yet, it feels like more a collector's item as it only magnifies how incredible the original versions of these singles are, especially when you consider Karen and Richard were both in their very early twenties when these were first recorded. (Interestingly, in an interview with Huffington Post to promote 40/40, Richard shares he never liked the production on the original Superstar.)

The second recording found on this disc is the Hits Medley '76. If you have seen the Carpenters in concert from the release of Hush or if you've purchased Live at the Palladium, you're familiar with this one. I was blessed to be able to see them live, so this medley is a favorite, live or in studio. As some of the singles represented in the live version were already performed on the show, the line-up is a bit different but just as powerful. Tony Peluso's blazing guitar work on Goodbye to Love is audio gold. In this writer's opinion, including the hits medley on the television show, instead of bringing in new material or the latest singles, communicated to the audience that Karen and Richard had peaked. It was a story they never intended to tell.

Jerry Weintraub may have been at the management helm, but Richard was still the main creative force for the duo. Deciding material, style, and production was still left up to him. As often admitted, the pressure on them to come up with the next hit, self-induced but always hinted at by the company, left Richard almost unable to make a decision.

The next several selections on this disc reveal either the Carpenters versatility and interests or Richard's inability to decide on a direction. My belief is it was the latter as the songs have no consistent thread in style or content.

When the Carpenters finally released the first single of 1977, the excellent All You Get From Love is a Love Song, it was their first lead single not to break the Top Twenty since Ticket to Ride, eight years earlier. Had the single been released in 1974 through 1976 there is no doubt it would have hit hard. On the heels of Goofus from Hush, this was not a good sign.

Once leading the pack and determining the musical landscape, now Karen and Richard were led by it. The current culture was dominated by Star Wars, disco hits, and country styled rock of the Eagles. The spacey, symphonic, majestic Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft made it to their next disc, but the live show and the television special that came next showcased a selection embracing the popularity of the hot science fiction/ fantasy genre in movies.

The Close Encounters / Star Wars medley finds Richard front and center, doing what he loves. If for Karen the drums were always a pleasure, the same can be said for Richard and the piano. It's a beautiful piece, and I only wish it were free of the association with the movies so listeners could here it as the art it is.

In 1978, Leave Yesterday Behind, was cut as was Dancing in the Street. Both looked to the past. Leave was composed by the team that wrote For All We Know, and the similarities between the two are obvious. Still, it's a lovely song but certainly not singles material.

Heading in an even different direction compared to the last two recordings, Dancing in the Street returns the duo to the oldies format which worked well for a season (Now & Then album; Please Mr. Postman single) but soured later by being repeated too often. The Carpenters and this song go way back in the history of the duo.

Dancing in 1968

Dancing in the Street has been covered by so many artists, that it's no wonder that the Carpenters were also won over by its charms. It's also popular with fans, being recorded by everyone from Mick Jagger and David Bowie to KC (of Sunshine Band fame) and Terri DeSario. In a bit of confession, let me say there isn't a version of this song that I don't like. Karen and Richard first recorded the classic Motown hit in 1968 in an entirely different style than what we hear on As Time Goes By.

They must have loved this song. It was rerecorded by them ten years later in a slick pop/disco style. Infamously unavailable as one of several songs considered for single release on an album which never made its debut. Yet, it would eventually debut on television.

The duo does disco in 1978!

There is one connecting point of interest. Paul Riser, who did the arrangement for the original Motown version also arranged the 1978 recording by the Carpenters. Does his name sound familiar? It should. Paul was also the arranger for the duo's 1978 single release, (and yet another turn in style), I Believe You.

First officially heard on the duo's Space Encounters television special, Dancing does have a nice swing to it and ends with an impressive saxophone fade out. The television visual is a little odd, sort of sock hop meets disco hybrid. Richard looks like he's having a bit of fun, and Karen seems to be enjoying herself, weaving in and out of the dancers.

Being an oldie, there's some similarities in production to a later recording, a remake of The Marvelettes' Beechwood 4-5789, the same group that brought Please Mr. Postman to the public's ear. This Motown oldie was found on the Carpenters comeback album, Made in America. Aside from hearing the very smooth background vocals in each of these two songs, Dancing seems a bit fresher in comparison. That said, Tony Peluso does some great guitar work on the 1981 recording, but Postman bests both. Upon several listens to the song on the CD, I wondered if a full length version exists, although I'm sure Richard would have put it out as such if it did. Especially since this is a mini-boxed set of rarities.

Since this is a compilation of rarities from the duo's work, the disc skips past Karen's solo album and heads into what they recorded once it was decided her album would not be released when intended.

Clearly thin, but she looks very elegant.

Perhaps Richard tired of trying to join in on the musical trends of the day or what worked in the past. His decision to record songs from the Great American Songbook was a stroke of genius- and a huge step ahead of other artists who would one day make doing so a rite of passage.

For fans of the duo's excellent television special from 1980, Music, Music, Music, the collection of songs on the disc would be more than welcome as several selections finally appear here. There was no follow up video release of the much admired but lowly rated broadcast. The only previously released song from the show was When I Fall in Love- which finally made its way onto the 1989 release Lovelines almost a decade later.

Guest stars on the special would be Ella Fitzgerald, and John Davidson, and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. The arrangements of Nelson Riddle would take center stage in the music for the special, giving the whole presentation a timeless feel that Richard worked hard to achieve. Given the year it was created, this was a bold move on his part. Bravo, Richard!

Beginning with the full version of Without A Song, their famously layered vocals create quite the opening cut. Karen completes the song taking on the Ella Fitzgerald lines, and Richard confidently tackles John's part and reminds us his voice can be a capable instrument as well. Even the choir belongs here. This recording is well done, making the listener forget this was originally a group effort that also included John Davidson, a likable man but with star quality much less than those in his company.

It's well known by now that Karen and Richard had pressed copies of the songs from this television special onto vinyl as a gift for their family, friends, and closest associates. It's unfortunate that they and A&M Records couldn't take a leap of faith with the music and release it at the time of the special. Always tasteful and rarely indulgent, both Richard and Karen shine on these all American standards. It would have made an excellent follow up to the freshness and bite of Passage and the timeless charms of Christmas Portrait. (Just imagine if Karen's solo album had been released when originally intended and was included in this line-up of albums. Talk about versatility! The only other artists I can think of with this eclectic album styles are Madonna and Sting, both who constantly reinvent themselves.) Unfortunately, it would take Linda Ronstadt releasing "Whats' New" in 1983 to give other artists the courage to record a full album of these timeless classics. (Was Linda a fan of I Can Dream Can't I? from 1975's Horizon? Or was she watching Music, Music, Music at home?)

Time for a little George and Ira Gershwin. This piece was intended to be a bit campy and fun as well as giving Karen a chance to show off some drumming, a la Live at the Palladium, but the opening vocals are just lovely. There are times when Karen could crank up the power, and there are times when her voice glides effortlessly through a melody. I Got Rhythm succeeds because of the arrangement choosing the latter approach. Richard wisely lets Karen sing and keeps the instrumentation to a minimum. Among many special songs found here, this one is an unexpected gem.

Dizzy Fingers. I do like Richard's instrumentals, but I so wish he would have included Slaughter on Tenth Avenue instead. It may have been a concession to time restraints on the disc. Dizzy Fingers is frantic, melodic and relatively brief. Richard clearly enjoyed the keys and that simple joy of making music is evident here.

With John Davidson on the Music x 3 set.

Irving Berlin wrote the next number, You're Just in Love, another song that made it's debut on television before it did on disc. Richard stands in for the performance by John Davidson, doing a more than decent job, but creating a "brother knows best" scenario versus one of two young lovers speaking. It's old fashioned, dated, charming, and one of Karen's loveliest vocals. She goes into her rich lower register often, reminding us of her ease and greatness in front of a microphone. The lyrics briefly give Carpenters fans a bit of unfortunate double meaning, but Richard's arrangement is appropriately old school fluff and very, very effective. One of my favorite cuts. Even the choir fits in well!

Ella meets her match.

If a casual or curious music fan needed one reason to purchase this disc, the next selection is it. The Karen / Ella medley showcases two American treasures. Pairing Karen with Ella Fitzgerald was another stroke of genius by Richard. This decision alone probably did more to cement Karen's place as one of the 20th Century's greatest singers as much as all the duo's hit singles combined. You just had to take Karen much more seriously when she could hold her own with one of America's most respected and beloved vocalists.

Creating well-crafted medleys was always one of Richard's strengths. It's no exception here. Richard may not be present vocally, but his skill at bringing out the best in Karen is in full presence here. Certainly his strength in song selection plays out well, but in this cut, it dawned on me that perhaps Richard was also Karen's vocal coach. And to what great result! The medley begins slowly, covering This Masquerade and builds from there. The ladies sound like they were meant to be together, each shining as well as allowing the other do the same.

I've read several reviews where My Funny Valentine is pointed out as the strongest piece, but I see it (hear it!) a little differently. Someone to Watch Over Me highlights everything I love about Karen's vocals. It's warm and intimate, tender, and full of yearning. When she croons "I'm a little lamb whose lost in the wood, I know I could always be good to one who''ll watch over me", I'm totally disarmed. Almost as if I'm hearing her for the first time, I can't believe what I am listening to, and I am instantly a life-long fan again. I rejoice for what was, and I grieve for what could have been. What a talent and what a loss.

The sweet playful side comes out for Miss Piggy.

Chronologically, the last selection is the most bittersweet. The lyrics make it this collection's Look to Your Dreams. While recording for Made in America, Richard selected the now classic Paul Williams tune, The Rainbow Connection. Wisely, it did not make that 1981 disc, and it should have been held for a children's or movie themed album. Fans heard of it and soon were practically demanding its release.

Here was the woman who loved Disneyland and Mickey Mouse singing a song made famous by Kermit the Frog. The performance is befitting the sentiment. Even though Richard says Karen really disliked it, I believe this song was just as much a part of her as My Body Keeps Changing My Mind. She was a complex woman, full of varied opinions and even contradictions. In the context of a career and life cut way too short, this song is a timeless and powerful slice of Carpenters history.

All good things must come to an end.

There are many personal connections to this disc, so playing it takes me places I do not always want to go. It's much like how I view the life and career of the duo. They are wrapped into the fabric of my life, and I associate certain albums and songs to joyful or difficult eras. The music found here covers so many of them. I guess I'd honestly say I prefer my music to have emotional and spiritual impact than to just tickle my ears. If you're new to the Carpenters or just made it through this massive article and are still reading, let me encourage you to dig a bit deeper into their catalog. Karen and Richard successfully touched hearts and continue to do so almost 50 years after they'd only just begun.
This is just the latest review of the albums by Karen and Richard Carpenter. To start at the beginning, just search for them by title or begin here. Where will I go from here in the series? I'm not sure at this point.

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