January 7, 2016

Carpenters Revisited: A Fresh Look at Offering / Ticket to Ride

During my teen years, the music of Karen and Richard Carpenter was easily found on Top 40 Radio or spinning on my turntable (or later in the 8-Track player in my car). Many times their long playing albums and 45 RPM singles would be played on the entertainment center in my parent's living room. As a young adult, their last album, Made in America came out while I was dating my wife. Karen's untimely death occurred right before our very first wedding anniversary, with Voice of the Heart debuting just before our first child was born. As you can tell, Carpenters music was woven into my life. 

When the blog first began many years ago, eventually I decided I'd review each album, beginning with Ticket to Ride. As the reviews continued one album after another, one day I realized as I was also telling the story of life in sunny Southern California in the 70's, more specifically Orange County. The articles also told the story of my life. This includes finally meeting my musical heroes. 

When I discovered the A&M Corner, it was an eye opener: seemingly there was hundreds of hard core fans on this site. Fans of Karen and Richard, from many varied backgrounds and experiences, each with differing tastes, each with stories about how the duo and the music had impacted their lives. 

Over the course of my interaction with these wonderful folks and the equally great moderators on the discussion board, I found I truly enjoyed wide range of perspectives regarding each album, song, and single and why this collection or that one was a success or failure. Reading the memories of concerts seen and television specials watched was delightful. Like so many folks on those boards, I particularly enjoyed sharing the opinions and facts surrounding Karen's ill-fated solo album and Richard's own solo career after her passing.

As with most fans of the duo, I was passionate about their music and had my favorite discs and songs... but from the people on the boards, I discovered a brand new appreciation for those selections I'd previously overlooked, changing my perspective and "Top Ten" lists over time. All this leads me to the point of reassessing my look at each album as we approach the 50th Anniversary of the duo's recording career. Now for a fresh look at the incredible music of Carpenters!

Repackaged as Ticket to Ride, the way I first saw and heard it.

"The Carpenters had an album out before Close to You?"

That question went round in my head the first time I discovered the Ticket to Ride LP in Wallich's Music City.  It was 1971, and several months earlier, I had purchased the duo's smash album mainly on the enduring strength of its second single, We've Only Just Begun.

Growing up in Orange County, California, I was living in Garden Grove when I first became aware of Karen and Richard Carpenter. The beach was close enough to me that I'd spend quite a bit of time there, and Disneyland was actually the first destination I learned to reach once I was behind the wheel of a car. 

My folks were young and young at heart, less then two decades older than me, and music was a part of our home as long as I can remember. Dick Clark and American Bandstand were clearly my Mom's favorites. "I'll give it a 75 because I can dance to it" was as common of phrase as me discussing Disneyland's next "E Ticket" at the dining room table. (For you Disney fans, The Haunted Mansion had just opened in August 1969, only a few years after a New Tomorrowland and the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean.)

I loved everything about Southern California and totally embraced the lifestyle, although we moved constantly from one apartment to the next as my Dad got his career going and didn't always have money to pay the rent. Overall, we lived in 21 places before I was 18, with just 3 different homes from 7th to 12th grade. Eventually, we settled into a pretty nice home, backyard pool included. Why even bother making friends when you knew you were going to move to another school anyway? Besides, I had the music to keep me company.

The great hits of Motown were songs I knew by heart, as I would happily spend long lazy summers at my grandmother's house with my two teenaged aunts. They loved everything released by the Supremes, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder. I knew more Rhythm and Blues and Pop songs by black artists to such large a degree that I was only slightly aware of the multitudes of hits by that little English band named the Beatles. The Fall of 1970 would change everything.

Seventh grade, sitting on the bus by myself (of course) and being patient for it to take off for the ride home. I always sat as far to the front as I could. I wanted to hear the radio. No, I had to hear the radio. As an unathletic teen, music was my life, and this bus driver had turned me on to Los Angeles' 93 KHJ radio by having it on every afternoon. This meant hearing Ain't No Mountain High Enough next to Make It With You; American Woman then The Love You Save, and Cracklin' Rosie all in one hour. 

Suddenly this voice catches my ear. Someone whose voice I didn't know at all. A woman's voice so warm and tender and genuine, that it fully caught me off guard. I was instantly awestruck. The unabashedly romantic lyrics surprised me as well. Who was the woman and what was the song? Arriving home, I begged to take a bike ride to the nearby record store and purchase the 45. Off I went.

The next year, I would return to the store and search the bins only to find a totally different Carpenters album than the one I purchased right after the "Begun" single. By that point in time, I knew the Close to You album very, very well, and with the success of the first two singles, I expected a third, but it did not happen.

Photo outtakes from the original Offering sessions.

Eventually I took the plunge and purchased Ticket to RideThe sophisticated sound of the earlier disc with its intimate ballads and upbeat numbers made me think there was more of this style to be found on their earlier album. To say the least, was I very, very surprised! 

I was not a big fan of what I heard back then compared to the first album I purchased by Karen and Richard, but there were some songs of notice, and it certainly was ambitious. My first review of the disc on the blog reflected that general sense of disappointment (along with the fact I wasn't entirely sure of what I was doing). Hopefully, this revised piece will make up for the brevity of the earlier one.

For many decades, in spite of repeated listenings, my feelings about the disc remained much the same. It was the 1989 television bio The Karen Carpenter Story and it's use of All of My Life that made me begin to re-evalate it. The very slow process eventually gained momentum due to the constant stream of  on line enthusiasm for this album. More and more folks singing its praises with posts on the A&M Corner discussion boards finalized my desire to rethink the project. 

As I get older and rethink my own life with its variety of good and bad decisions, successes and failures, I am gaining in grace for others around me. And I'm rethinking perspectives and opinions I once held too dear. It's with this outlook that I've readdressed the music of Karen and Richard.

The opening song,  Invocation is a lovely but all too short piece of high church music. There's a solemn hopefulness as she sings this Richard Carpenter / John Bettis tune.  The layered vocals of she and Richard enhance the recording. It feels much like the pieces recorded by the California State University Long Beach choir when Karen sang with them, and that is a nice connection to their past. As with many songs of the time, there's a bit of a faith infusion found here. Some artists of the time brought this to the music scene  very well - Norman Greenbaum's hippie-ish Spirit in the Sky comes to mind - but many others were not quite as successful. The clean and simple vocal arrangement works to the Carpenters' advantage here.

Pretty rare Offering 8-track. Not mine, unfortunately!

Invocation is the first of ten songs on this collection that were penned by the Carpenter /Bettis songwriting team or by Richard on his own. Perhaps the oddest is the next selection, Your Wonderful Parade. It's a stark contrast to the elegance of the opening number. Bright, loud, and with a strong drum performance by Karen (who has been relegated to background vocals on this cut), Parade seems to reinforce the idea that Carpenters at heart were really a minstrel vocal group- even if only the brother and sister were photographed for the album. 

Karen in marching band- reprising a role in Your Wonderful Parade.

If the goal in placing this recording as the second selection was to get the listener to stand up and take notice, it brazenly succeeds. The cynical, biting, lyric line and the wildly unconventional arrangement create a raw and very fresh item that you'd expect to find on their later album, Passage. I've grown to appreciate it for what it is, a time capsule of sorts in a career cut short much too soon.

Overblown and beyond dramatic. I'm just not a fan of Someday anymore. It's the first true pop ballad featuring Karen's lead vocals, and to this day, I really cannot decide if it is the arrangement or the performance. The ending is just cringe worthy. Richard has said that Karen was not happy with her original performance and would have liked to rerecord it. I wish they had. A truncated recutting of the song was part of a medley for the Music, Music, Music television special in 1980 (and that version appears on two later boxed sets). That show's medley is among my favorite of their recordings, but I do wish that piece would have been replaced. It's still overblown and dramatic... everything the critics wrongly accused the Carpenters of being.

Much like the turbulent 60's and early 70's, Offering/Ticket to Ride is an album of stark contrasts in the content of its lyrics. In one cut, the establishment is being loudly mocked and criticized and just a few selections later, Richard is asking people to Get Together. The Chet Atkins written song was a very popular one and was recorded multiple times. The Youngbloods made a mid-chart hit of it in 1967, just two years prior to it finding its way to the Carpenters' album. It's another spiritual number but in some ways an odd choice. The song's filled with references to the Bible, especially the book of Revelation, where Jesus returns to gather his faithful believers from the world at the end of time. Richard handles the lead vocals on the stanzas, giving it a very breathy performance, while Karen is strongly up front on the chorus. It begins simply enough with the piano, but about the 48 second mark, the horns kick in with the rhythm section, making it a very compelling recording. It's probably one of few where the arrangement and orchestration is the strongest element of the song.

Next up is All of My Life, the Offering song that Richard wrote sans John Bettis and the one he wisely chose to represent this album while making The Karen Carpenter Story. In my opinion, the brilliance of Karen Carpenter that set her apart from other vocalists came in the performances when she chose to simply sing the number, inflecting nuances instead of stridently pushing her voice up and down the charts. The music behind her reflects the longing in her heart, communicating a tenderness she so well expressed in song. Although it falters a bit toward the end, All of My Life gives listeners a hint of what was to come in the future, and it's my favorite selection on the album.

Side One ends with Turn Away, with lead vocal by Richard that is much better than I first realized. That said, it's only when Karen enters the picture that the song begins to find its center. Enjoyable and upbeat, it is a pretty solid but ordinary closing number for the first half of the album.

The A&M Records promotional team 
began their blundering with this poor idea of how to promote the duo.

As I wrote in the earlier article, covering a Beatles song is a very risky thing to do, and not many artists do it well. Karen and Richard were certainly not the first to try it. While the British megastars were still together, it was a very common practice for acts of all genres to jump in. Even Aretha Franklin got caught up in this trend, recording Eleanor Rigby. The title song was the first and only single from the debut album, and it has a strange chart history.

Ticket debuted on the Billboard charts at #92 for the week ending Valentine's Day 1970. The second week, it remained there. Five weeks later, it peaked at #73 then dropped off the charts by the first week in April. It re-entered two weeks later at #81, eventually reaching #54 on May 9, before dropping off once more, this time for good. (Interestingly, in less than a month Close to You would hit the charts...having a very different outcome than Ticket.) Was the public that fickle? Did A&M promotional executives push harder than before? What role did radio play? Whatever caused the change in fortunes for the single certainly added to A&M giving the duo another chance in the studio.

More marketing mistakes.
Out of curiosity, I darkened the photo to see Richard's face.
I can understand why he was angry.

The song itself is such a contrast to the Beatles' version. Ballad versus upbeat, female vocalist versus male lead, etc. As part of Offering, it comes across as a novelty piece, but when it appeared in revised form on The Singles 1969-1973, the song positively shimmered in its moodiness. It's almost as if two different artists were performing the same piece.

From the same photo sessions 
that brought about a new name and album cover.

After such a serious song, Don't Be Afraid refreshes the listener with its upbeat message and catchy tune; "groovy thing" cliches aside. Never thinking much of it beyond that, it wasn't until hearing the Carpenters use in it their act that I had a sweet appreciation for it. More for sentimental reasons than the actual quality of the song itself. It's followed by an equally lightweight number, What's the Use. Much like side one's closer, the song is nice, fluffy, and mostly unremarkable. 

The roots of The Richard Carpenter Trio come in with with All I Can Do. It's bright, jazzy, and quite a nice change of pace. Perhaps one of the most successful cuts on the album due to these factors, the song gives Karen a chance to vocally stretch out a bit... and to play bass in addition to playing drums throughout the album.  

A much happier presentation of the duo
after a few hits under their belt.

From hot to cold. Eve. Ugh. Saddled with simple rhymes and a melody that plods, this song is regularly skipped. As the last "full" song with Karen's lead vocal on the album, it's a disappointment. Much worse a selection than Someday, and towards the bottom of my Carpenters barrel. That's all I will say. 

Before the Benediction kicks in, Richard and Karen successfully take on a Neil Young classic. Richard's vocals are strong and clear here. At one point if I hear it correctly, the keyboard takes on the sound of an oboe for a few brief seconds. A taste of things to come. Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing sounds great even if lyrically it is a very depressing song. With its extended instrumental piece, the ending reminds me of Another Song from the Close to You album.

Once the Offering album was repackaged as Ticket, sales were better. This was mostly due to the success of their second album but also due to use of new photographs and graphics. On the original cover, Karen and Richard look tired and angry. On the repackaged album, the sailboat photo, the water, and smiling faces of the duo bring a cheery, bright outlook for marketing purposes. This change is much more representative of the music found within. A great move on A&M's part- one of few when it came to visually representing the duo. 

Do smiling faces sell more records?

It wasn't too long after I purchased the Ticket album in 1971 that the next album came out. Carpenters (also known as the Tan album) was fresh and new, so I put their first disc aside. This maybe led to me not appreciating it as much as I do now. It's not their best work, but as Richard himself has said, it was a pretty good album for a brand new act. Yes, Richard, it is...and your second one would be among your best. 

My Original Review here, with the rest of the albums following in chronological order.   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 & 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 series:

Close to You
A Song for You


Trevin Wax said...

Hi Mark,

I've followed your blog for a couple years now and have enjoyed your reviews and recollections about the release of each Carpenters album. I'm a millennial fan of the Carpenters, largely because my parents dated during the 70's and continued to listening to their music when I was a kid in the 80's and 90's. Eventually, I came to love "the voice" for myself.

Regarding Ticket to Ride, this album is not one of my favorites. I do however enjoy it for different reasons at different levels, primarily because it has all the raw elements of the Carpenters' "sound" and all the seeds of their eventual success. All those elements eventually coalesced in the Close to You album and built up with each succeeding album until Horizon - which I consider to be the summit of the Carpenters canon from an artistic perspective.

Regarding "Someday," I liked it as a teenager, when I was closer in age to the age that Richard and Karen recorded it. I'm not a fan now. It is overly ambitious and the orchestration nearly drowns Karen's voice.

I do think "Eve" is a better album cut - syrupy, yes, but Karen's voice is in fine form. You should listen again to the very end of the song. The choral vocal dubs there reach back to the minor opening of "Invocation" and swell into the major closing of "Benediction." This is a true album cut - not meant to be listened to only by itself but within the opening and closing of "Offering" as a work of art.

There's something interesting about Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing that I've wondered if anyone else in the world (other than me) has ever noticed. Perhaps I'll send you an email about a theory if you shoot me a note.

Thanks for the review of Ticket to Ride. I look forward to your future posts.

Mark Taft said...

Trevin, first off, thank you for reading all these years!
Your insights are really appreciated, and it is fans such as your self that made me reevaluate the album in the first place.
Regarding Someday and Eve, I think if the lyrics of each were matched with the melody of the other, I'd like the new Someday much better.

Go ahead and send me another comment with your ideas about Clancy, and I'll be glad to respond!

dvakman said...

I have been listening to my recently obtained "remastered classics" CD of Offering for the past couple weeks. As a general rule, I'm more of a 60s pop guy than a 70s adult contemporary guy, so these early Carpenters albums really fit in more with my overall collection. Often viewed as a bit of an aberration in the Carpenters catalog, this 60s soft pop offering from the duo would slot in wonderfully with a playlist featuring groups like The Free Design, The Fifth Dimension,"Friends" era Beach Boys, The Association, and the most obvious antecedent from the A&M label, Roger Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends. In the 1986 Richard interview which is podcasted on Itunes, Richard is asked about the impact of Paul Williams on the Carpenters discography, and Richard immediately switches gears to a discussion about Roger, his melodies and the influence the Circle of Friends album had on Carpenters at the time. You can definitely hear it in this album! Paul Williams is far more visible and well known these days, but IMHO it's the melodies that really shine in those later Nichols/Williams covers rather than Paul's lyrics, and Richard seems to recognize that.

Favorite tracks: Invocation / Benediction (on his website, Richard astutely compares these tracks to the Beach Boys' (in)famous intro "Our Prayer" from the Beach Boys' aborted SMiLE sessions), and All I Can Do (wonderfully existing halfway between the Zombies and the Fifth Dimension). I like Karen's ballads on this album, but they're not quite definitive in the way they will be in the albums to come, which is maybe one of the reasons that I think this album tends to be a little less popular than the other earlier albums among fans. I'm very open to the non-ballads though, so it still coheres well for me.

Favorite cover: Clancy (nice musicianship and in fact Karen's drumming shines throughout this album). Underrated track: What's the Use (nobody talks about this track, but I really like it: great chord changes, nice vocal interplay between the duo and a breezy soft pop approach).

Overall, I would rate this as one of my favorite Carpenters albums. It's definitely somewhere in my top five, but I haven't listened to all the other albums enough yet to definitively rank them.

Mark Taft said...

dvakman, thank you for reading and for your comments! Very, very insightful observations worth a read!

guitarmutt said...

Very nice article. I like your insight and your contextualization. I am looking forward to the rest of your reviews.

Mark Taft said...

Thank you, guitarmutt! I look forward to taking the time and listen to each album fresh.

Near-Genius Nephew said...

Mark, I'm glad to see you retool your project and this is a fine first step. I think Chris (Dvakman) has just written some great material that would flesh out some of the areas in your essay that could benefit from additional context. What I can add is that, listening to Offering obsessively for an extended period of time, I hear all of the C's formative influences colliding in ambitious abandon--the melodic "post-folk oratorio" traces that had captured Richard's musical mind, perhaps torn equally between the differing harmonic approaches to be studied in the Beach Boys and in those Roger Nichols tracks. Add jazz, Bacharach (kicking in here in so many sidelong ways), Broadway (surely "Someday" was meant to be a key first act song for a musical never written), Baroque keyboard music, and (of course) the Beatles.

I can see why Richard downplays the record in the light of what followed, but this is an LP that showcases some massive talent that is just looking for a way to synthesize itself. Karen may not be quite the presence that took the world by storm less than a year later, but like Richard she is this close to it (I have thumb and index finger just barely apart as I write this) and reveals a feature of her skill set that we still tend to overlook: she's one of the greatest background singers ever. As Mark notes, "Turn Away" comes alive when she enters the arrangement, and the same thing happens on "What's The Use." These are not the highly polished songs that would follow, but they have a youthful ambition that Richard takes to higher ground in "artier" tracks such as "Another Song" and "Crescent Noon," pushing against the limits of vocal arrangement in search of that spiritual sound that first manifests on Offering in the wonderful "Invocation."

And I agree with Mark and Chris about "Clancy"--I'm not sure that the average music fan is ready to deal with the idea that Richard actually found a way to successfully assimilate this song into the Carpenters' oeuvre. Makes you wish he'd done it with a number of other contemporary tracks, doesn't it? As always, it's the jazz inflections that seal the deal--the two kids are cookin' at the end of this song, reminding us that they both could really play. It's a toss-up for me between Richard's outro here on "Clancy" and his funky-fried final run on "Help!" as to my favorite moment in terms of his all-too-shortlived "flying fingers" period, but both of them should remind us that he could have a heavyweight jazz pianist with nothing more than the snap of his fingers. Instead, he had a sister who was one of the greatest singers of all time, and we all know where that led. But I think Mark has reaffirmed what many of us have been saying--the more familiar one becomes with Offering, the better it becomes. It's not Close to You, of course--which really is a landmark LP and should be in the Top 50 for all of rock/pop history--but it's darned good (and unique to boot).

Mark Taft said...

Wonderful observations on the disc and its influence in what would be coming next. Thank you, Near-Genius Nephew!
Please keep them coming as I re-review each one.

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Benjamin said...

I find “Eve” to be remarkable! Maybe it was it’s use in the telepic that slants my view of it but i think it’s very well written.